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May 28th, 2017

Insight

Mainstream Republicans think they're in control

Albert Hunt

By Albert Hunt Bloomberg View

Published Dec. 15, 2016

Mainstream Republicans are buoyed by Donald Trump's appointments so far, convinced that strategically positioned top officials can freeze out those they consider extremists.


On domestic issues, establishment congressional conservatives believe that an alliance of Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Paul Ryan and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus will encourage the Trump administration to push a conventional Republican agenda. They also are counting on support from Trump's oldest daughter, Ivanka. The loser, in this view, will be top White House counselor Steve Bannon, a champion of white nationalists and the populist right.


On national security, the betting is that Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis, a retired general, will join forces with Trump's choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon-Mobil, to outmanuever the designated national security adviser, retired General Mike Flynn. Flynn has drawn criticism for calling Islam "a political ideology" and ex-colleagues have said they are worried about his volatile temperament.


These Republicans see an historical analogy in the Ronald Reagan administration. Reagan's first White House chief of staff, James Baker, and his deputy, Mike Deaver, ran circles around Reagan's right-wing lieutenants led by Ed Meese. Later, Secretary of State George Shultz, with a key ally, First Lady Nancy Reagan, set the foreign policy agenda over the objections of hawks like National Security Adviser William Clark.

But Pence, Ryan and Priebus have worked together and share mutual respect. Priebus lacks Baker's command of politics and policy. But he's shrewd enough and already is placing key people in White House positions, a step toward exercising power that seems of little interest to Bannon.


The conservative establishment agenda includes deregulation, big tax and spending cuts, a reasonably ambitious infrastructure plan that doesn't bust the budget and a replacement for Obamacare that doesn't take effect for several years. They also hope to avoid aggravating racial divisions and to work around Trump's campaign promise to deport millions of undocumented foreigners.


Ryan and his allies may try to find common ground with some Democrats on a few issues, even if doing so inflames the hard right in the administration and in Congress.

On national security, much of the Republican establishment disdains Flynn, a once-respected tactical commander in Afghanistan who now seems consumed with a bitter hatred of the Obama administration. It fired him from his post as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He is virulently anti-Muslim and friendly to Russia.


There is a sense now that Mattis -- who has one more star than Flynn -- will prove more capable and that Tillerson, if confirmed, is likely to become an ally of the Defense chief. Tillerson will face a rough confirmation process because of his friendly relationship to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. He almost certainly will have to articulate a distinction between his role doing business as CEO of Exxon-Mobil and being America's top diplomat.


He will probably be opposed by most, if not all, Democrats, so his fate could rest with anti-Putin Republican senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

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