Column

Trump can’t lead by tweet

The political class is still coming to grips with what appears to be Donald Trump’s novel management philosophy: Government by Twitter. Put aside the by-now-familiar weirdness of our president-elect’s gloating over Arnold Schwarzenegger’s poor “Celebrity Apprentice” ratings or swipes at Meryl Streep. Trump’s Twitter addiction poses heretofore unnoticed challenges for his administration.

The president-elect often emphasizes the value of being “unpredictable.” And he has a point — in certain contexts. Keeping our enemies guessing has advantages. Defenders of Trump’s habit of jabbing corporations about their offshoring decisions will tell you that Trump is “setting the tone from the top.” Since such decisions are often made with a narrow cost-benefit calculus, the argument goes, so using tweets to encourage executives to err on the side of “America first” is a valuable way to change the business culture. 

Whether you like Trump’s economic reasoning, you can see why he likes keeping CEOs afraid of the crack of his Twitter whip.

But what about his own appointees and allies in Congress?

When I’ve talked to veterans of the Ronald Reagan administration, particularly the speechwriting or policy shops, I’ve often heard a common observation. Knowing what the boss believed was both empowering and efficient. If you know a policy or a line in a speech will never fly with the president, you won’t bother pursuing it. 

Peter Robinson, the acclaimed speechwriter, has written at length about how knowing Reagan’s vision made his job easier. Robinson could write “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” because he knew it was what Reagan wanted to have happen.

“Ronald Reagan’s writers were never attempting to fabricate an image, just to produce work that measured up to the standard Reagan himself had already established. His policies were plain. He had been articulating them for decades.” 

The vast literature on leadership and management hammers away on this point: Provide a vision and then let the troops do the hard work. Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of GE, put it this way: “In order to lead a country or a company, you’ve got to get everybody on the same page and you’ve got to be able to have a vision of where you’re going.” Gen. Bernard “Monty” Montgomery said that his “own definition of leadership is this: the capacity and the will to rally men and women to a common purpose and the character which inspires confidence.”

Except for trade policy, there are few areas where Trump’s troops have a clear idea of exactly what the boss wants, and his compulsive tweeting adds a layer of unpredictability. I’ve talked to half a dozen committed and principled conservatives considering jobs in the administration, and I heard one recurring concern: “Will Trump have my back?” 

The point isn’t about personal loyalty, but resolve in the face of the inevitable political and media backlashes that will come with any serious reform effort. 

Consider two recent incidents. The House GOP caucus voted to sharply curb the power of the Office of Congressional Ethics. Contrary to some opportunistic statements by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), there’s bipartisan consensus that the OCE is a hot mess. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, led an effort to scrap it, knowing that the GOP would take a political hit for doing so. When the predictable firestorm hit, Trump hied to Twitter to mock the effort as a distraction, earning a nanosecond of favorable coverage by killing the initiative.

A more crucial example is the effort to repeal Obamacare. Last week, Trump issued a series of Twitter fatwas saying that Congress shouldn’t do anything that lets Democrats off the hook for the problems of Obamacare.

Politically, I think Trump is right to be concerned about the perils of repealing Obamacare without having a replacement ready. But his glib response elicits fear among some conservatives that he won’t stand fast on repealing Obamacare, or much else. There are countless areas — entitlements, civil rights, immigration, etc. — where serious conservative reforms will spark controversy, horrible headlines and negative coverage on “the shows” the president-elect watches obsessively. Will Trump impetuously use Twitter to triangulate against his own troops? 

Right now, Trump’s defenders wave off such concerns, saying he’s using Twitter to communicate a clear vision to his team and the whole country. Time will tell. To me, that seems like a generous reading between the lines — or between tweets about Meryl Streep.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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