“Personnel Is Policy”: To Get Back On Track, Trump Must Recall Reagan’s Example


Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
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Close supporters of Donald Trump have frequently compared his insurgent Republican administration to that of Ronald Reagan, who defied not only Washington but the GOP establishment to capture the White House.

But Reagan, who had served two terms as a highly successful governor in California, also knew something about executive political management that seems to have escaped Trump thus far:

Have a diverse but unified management team that can fend off criticism while keeping you strictly focused on your agenda.

Reagan created an extraordinary “kitchen cabinet” of heavyweight advisers led by James Baker III who understood Reagan intimately but who also cultivated strong ties to key “influentials” in the political mainstream.

And Baker was supported by stalwarts like Michael Deaver and Ed Meese who could remind Reagan of his roots but also help him maneuver through the vast minefields of Washington.

Meese, for example, was a Reagan loyalist who knew his boss from the Gipper’s days as a two-term governor of California.

Considered too ideological by other members of the White House team, Meese always had Reagan’ ear and could keep his old compatriot form succumbing to the temptation of placating Washington insiders at the expense of his own instincts.

Deaver, who had worked with Reagan on his first presidential campaign in 1976, was the master media manager, staging press events to showcase Reagan’s strengths and fending off political snipers and saboteurs.

But it was Baker, as Reagan’s chief of staff, who coordinated the “troika,” as the threesome became known, and who streamlined the administration’s day-to-day operations, with the help of highly competent junior staffers like Richard Darman.

Whom does Trump have?

The key figure in his inner circle is the highly controversial Steve Bannon, whom critics suggest functions less as Meese-type loyalist, and more as a Svengali, using Trump as an instrument to promote his own idiosyncratic conservative agenda.  It’s an exaggerated portrait but the fact that it exists at all has damaged the administration’s ties to the GOP and to prospective Democratic supporters.

Likewise, former GOP party chief Reince Priebus is trying to fulfill the titular role once exercised by Baker, but seems in over his head, and overshadowed by Bannon and others.  His main role – like the one he played during the campaign – is to keep lines of communication open between the party and Trump.

But Priebus, unlike Baker, has not been privy to key Trump decisions – including his executive order on the travel ban — that have caught much of the party flat-footed.  It’s not even clear that he has any real influence over what Trump decides

And who is Trump’s Deaver?  No one apparently – except Trump.  As his recent press conference and incessant Tweeting suggests, no one but the Donald manages his media image anymore.

Not even Kelly Conway, who did such an impressive job as his campaign manager late in the game – and who deserves credit, perhaps, for putting Trump over the top.

Conway is reportedly seething that she’s been shut out of nearly every important White House meeting.   Sensing her marginal status, even the media is now heaping abuse on her.

And what of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka?   She’s been occupying the role once played by Reagan’s wife, Nancy, who adored her husband and could always get through to him, much as Ivanka exercises a special influence over her father.

She, too, seems missing in action.

It’s certainly not too late for Trump to make some necessary course corrections.  Right now his administration seems to be suffering from political entropy, with each large personality jockeying for position, and no one like Baker on hand to ride the herd – and make the center hold.

And where is Baker these days?  Practicing law as he always has.  But if you were watching the Super Bowl, you may have noticed an interesting fan shot.  Baker was sitting next to Vice President Mike Pence, who has watched the early days of the Trump administration unfold with growing consternation – all the while preserving his trademark game face of calm reserve

No doubt Baker must have recalled for Pence one of Reagan’s most noteworthy mantras of governance:  “Personnel is policy.”   Its meaning is simple:  Whom you put in key positions of policy management will ultimately dictate your administration’s success.

So far, Trump, doesn’t seem to be measuring up to the governing standard set by his forebear.  But hopefully, unlike the Patriots, he won’t wait until the fourth quarter to get a first-string team back on the field to win.