I grew up in the Sixties convinced that government service was an honorable profession. At Davidson College, my heroes were not hedge fund managers or Wall Street tycoons. With all due respect to my friends in these professions, I sought other ways to try to make the world a better place. At compulsory chapel three times a week, I embraced the values of faith, community, family, conscience, and empathy for the less fortunate we liked to think defined the mission of the school. After Davidson, I was honored to serve six presidents and Presidential nominees including Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Obama as an expert on the presidential transfer of power after an election.
I have come to believe that the peaceful transfer of power under our Constitution is one of the great glories of our democracy and the envy of governments around the world. Presidential transitions in America are unlike any other. When the election of a new president involves a change in party, as would be the case if Donald Trump were elected, the Constitution, statutory deadlines, and political custom subject the United States Government to the most radical change of power of any democracy in the world. It is a time when leaders of the past and future traditionally put down their arms and become partners and patriots in protecting the nation during the time of its greatest vulnerability. This tradition is now at risk.
Wednesday morning, Americans will wake up with a toxic hangover from a disgraceful, profane, and hate-filled campaign that may have coarsened public discourse and defined decency down for a generation. They must confront the reality that for at least the next four years a new leader with a fragile mandate and polls showing an unprecedented lack of trust will be sitting in the Oval Office.
On Election Day, there are two options: One is Hillary Clinton, a competent tested politician who happens to be a woman who in her last two years as Secretary of State was rated the most admired woman in the world. She brings with her a team of trusted advisors with years of experience at the highest levels of government and with close ties to Obama officials eager to make the transfer of power as seamless and efficient as possible.
And then there is Donald Trump, a real estate tycoon, reality show host, beauty contest entrepreneur, casino executive and branding expert whose exuberant cluelessness about government gives new meaning to the term “ignorance is bliss.” He has made no secret of the fact that he disdains government and the democratic values it is designed to protect and serve.
He can’t undo Obama easily
Unlike Clinton who has made mistakes in her government career and learned from them, Mr. Trump is not only ignorant of government but has nothing but contempt for the people who try to make it work. He appears to be a man without ideology or conscience who seeks power unlimited by constitutional checks or internal self restraint.
Why then is there any doubt about whom the American people will choose to be their president on Tuesday? One reason is that some of Trump’s supporters think he will “shake things up” through a blizzard of Executive Orders that will magically reverse most of President Obama’s achievements of the last 8 years. Executive Order blitzes are a seductive fantasy of many transitions but very little is actually accomplished. (Reagan prepared about 100 and my team prepared three volumes for Clinton but most were quietly buried at the end of the transition.) Real change takes legislation, which requires almost infinite patience, team work among rivals in Congress, compromise, the mastery of precedents, the mobilization of interest groups, the sharing of credit, rather than the brute force of presidential authority. In eight years as the junior senator from New York, Sen. Clinton demonstrated extraordinary legislative skills and won the respect of many of her Republican peers for her pragmatic, share the credit approach.
By temperament and business practice, Donald Trump, if elected, will find the crafting and passing of laws a frustrating and alien experience. The same may be said of his relations with his appointees. Mr. Trump famously said in an October speech with respect to effecting change, “I alone will do it.” No one with any government experience takes this claim seriously. The government of the United States is not designed to enable a dictator. Trump would be dependent on hundreds of appointees most of whom have taken oaths to uphold the law and will suffer consequences if they don’t. They are subject to congressional oversight and budget review; the civil service laws, and the approval of interest groups with vested interested in their agencies. Disappointing these constituencies would cause the executive to be dismissed as a failure. In business, Trump could use money or the ability to hire and fire to enforce his will. The president must use these powers judiciously unless he wants to risk impeachment.
As David Brooks said last week in the New York Times, “if you wanted to design a personality type perfectly ill suited to be a change agent in government, you would come up with Donald Trump: solipsistic, impatient, combative, unstable and ignorant.” Summing up his profile of Hillary’s governance skills, Brooks concluded: “Many of us disagree strongly with many Clinton policies. But any sensible person can distinguish between an effective operating officer and a whirling disaster who is only about himself.”
Stop waiting; he’s not calling you for help
Other Trump supporters actually find solace in the belief that the American presidency has become a weak institution with powers buffered and often negated by the checks and balances of our constitutional system. Rather than a vehicle for the exercise of dictatorial powers, the presidency is seen as part of a triad of separated institutions sharing powers which keep even the most aggressive chief executive from doing really stupid things.
While the fence sitters among the old Republican elite may privately concede that Donald Trump is the most dangerously ignorant and temperamentally unstable major party presidential candidate in American history, no worries! There will be plenty of time for the wise men of past Republican administrations to seduce him with their brilliance and render his egomania and paranoia a harmless idiosyncrasy. This naïve conceit will soon be abandoned as the elite wait by their cell phones for the call for help which by mid-November they will learn will never come. There are two reasons for the silence: first, Trump does not know what questions to ask and therefore does not think he needs help; and second, he really does not like or respect these guys(virtually all men by the way). He did not need them to get elected and he does not want to share power with them now.
Ironically many any of these same Republican leaders who take comfort in the prospect of a buffered, weakened presidency to keep Trump’s worst instincts in check have spent the last four years gnashing their teeth and rending their garments over the dictatorial powers attributed to President Obama as he copes with congressional deadlock and intense partisanship of the current House and Senate leaders.
A rushing freight train of decisions
The fact is that the rumors of the demise of the imperial presidency are both false and dangerous. There is plenty of opportunity for Mr. Trump to do great mischief even before the inauguration, let alone what he can do after January 20. In 11 frantic weeks from election to inauguration, the president-elect must prepare to take over a government that has been almost entirely decapitated of its senior policy officials. The White House staff completely turns over and must be rebuilt from scratch. Because political appointees now layer executive agencies and departments five to six levels down, the turnover of leadership in the rest of the government is also severe, leaving little institutional memory to guide the country’s new leaders. Over 1100 senior policy officials, whom the president alone can appoint and dismiss, must be recruited, assigned, and confirmed, a process that may not be completed until the end of his first year, nearly 12 months after the election.
From November 8th on, the president-elect faces an on rushing freight train of decisions – appointments, organization building, budget preparation, agenda setting, strategic planning. They come with a pace and complexity never experienced in running a business or a campaign. In the campaign, Mr. Trump could correct mistakes by a shift in rhetoric or policy nuance in the next campaign news cycle. As chief executive and commander in chief, Mr. Trump’s decisions would have long term consequences and the media, Congress, the Chamber of Commerce, foreign leaders all keep score. Bill Clinton, in his first 18 months, rapidly earned a reputation for disorganized incompetence because of a perception he was not ready to govern.
The 2016 transition will present the new president with the greatest management and policy challenges ever faced by a chief executive and commander in chief. The complexity of the management, policy, and organization issues confronting the president increases with every transition. Presidental scholar Richard Neustadt, my mentor at Harvard, liked to say that all new presidents are vulnerable to “arrogance in ignorance, their own and that of their associates.” The risks to the nation from the hubris and ignorance of new presidents can be mitigated or avoided by knowledge gained from the best practices of past transitions. But this requires a president to have enough respect for the challenges of his predecessors to be willing to learn from the past. Hillary Clinton knows the risks and opportunities of transition intimately, Donald Trump, not so much.
President Obama was right when he said recently: “I am not sure anyone is ever ready to be president before they are president.” Hillary Clinton knows this world better than any president elect in history and has a team of honorable, balanced and prudent leaders to help her prepare to govern. Donald Trump does not have this bench to lean on. None of his senior advisors have the kind of high level experience in the Cabinet, the White House, or the Executive Office of the President that would prepare them to step in immediately to help Mr. Trump get ready to govern.
Take it from a conservative
I will give the conservative intellectual David Frum the last word on the choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on Tuesday:
“To vote for Trump as a protest against Clinton’s faults would be like amputating a leg because of a splinter in your toe. On almost every domestic issue, she stands on one side, I stand on the other. But she is a patriot. She will uphold the sovereignty and independence of the United States. She will defend allies. She will execute the laws with reasonable impartiality. Above all, she can govern herself, the first indispensable qualification for governing others. So I will vote for the candidate who rejects my preferences and offends my opinions. There will be other elections. My party will recover. Your hand may hesitate to put a mark beside the name of Hillary Clinton. You are not doing it for her. The vote you cast is for the Republic and the Constitution.”
Harrison Wellford, a Charlotte native, has advised multiple presidents-elect on their transition to power. He is chairman of Wellford Energy Group.