The Biggest Test Yet for President Trump

There were many different camps of people who supported Candidate Trump, and there are many different camps of people now that he is President. There are those who seem totally incapable of formulating a friendly (and obvious) criticism even when warranted, and there are those who would criticize his choice of cereal. Suffice it to say, those two extremes are not likely to move a lot around any particular policy move, alteration in demeanor, or finding of a special counsel inquiry, for that matter. But one camp within the center right that matters a great deal is that camp of “skeptical about his conservative bona fides, but hopeful that he can be effective in certain things we care about.” This camp likely doesn’t find it hard to be appalled by tweets attacking the face of a news anchor, but also was unreserved in their praise for Judge Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. One could call this the “rational camp,” if such labels were helpful.

An issue as consequential but complicated as ObamaCare’s repeal and replace will likely not be the issue that sways this camp, as there is too much nuance around what President Trump can and cannot do. It is an issue that sub-divides most camps, because regardless of the desired outcome, there are questions as to where the President’s role starts and where it ends (hence, the tendency of many to cast blame on Speaker Ryan or Senate Leader McConnell). Fair enough. President Trump passionately backed the Senate plan, so it makes little sense of critics of the plan to absolve the President, but it is true that other actors are involved that complicate the way one judges the whole escapade.

NAFTA and free trade arrangements similarly do not provide a binary opportunity to judge the President. On one hand, if he fails to follow through on some of the extreme protectionist promises he made during the campaign, there are those (such as yours truly) who will be thrilled that he breaks those promises. And if he follows through on some, while free-trade free -marketeers like myself will be upset, many in his camp will believe it reflects an “America first” presidential agenda. The issue itself is sub-divisive.

But in an obscure corner comes an issue that I believe puts a lot on the line for the President. It is ideological, in that it speaks to a willingness to protest a crucial issue of our time: Crony capitalism. It delves into matters of resolve – of fortitude – of political courage. And it is political, as the savvy and wit needed to pull this off will require the type of “businessman’s acumen” that drove many to vote for President Trump last year. I refer to the confirmation of Scott Garrett to run the Export-Import Bank, an issue that sounds granular and insignificant, but both materially and symbolically is anything but.

Scott Garrett, a long-time conservative Congressman in New Jersey who lost his seat last year, is a controversial pick for the Ex-Im Bank, primarily because he doesn’t believe in its existence. President Trump ran against the Ex-Im Bank and the “Bannon wing” of his administration has made no secrets of their opposition to such crony and corporatist endeavors. But Congressman Garrett is a principled and intelligent leader who can lead an organization that is riddled with poor accountability and integrity, and he can do so even more as one who is opposed to the status quo of the organization than one who buys into the party line about its existence. Those leading the charge against the Ex-Im Bank are business groups who believe Garrett will minimize their access to federal dollars. The Senate confirmation will be tight, and an unequivocal and dominating message from the White House that they support their candidate, that they believe in his message of reform, and that they will not be bullied either by leftist groups who opposed Garrett because of his conservatism, or right wing groups who fear Garrett will be obnoxiously obstructionist to their corporate friends.

No one believed 35+ years ago that President Reagan’s stance on the air traffic controllers was so important. The issue was tangential, but what it represented became definitive in his administration. Few Presidents have ever gone six months in office so desperately in need of such an opportunity. The Ex-Im Bank is a blight on our free enterprise system, and Scott Garrett, wisely chosen by this Trump administration to lead it, is the right man to reform it and align its operation with a humble and non-cronyist agenda. President Trump’s willingness to fight for this nomination will show all camps that he still has some resolve left after six challenging and largely non-productive months in office. And they will show that some of the brighter spots of his pre-election agenda remain in focus.