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Here’s How Conservative Policy Wonks Grade Trump’s First Year


Daniel Drezner recently argued in The Washington Post that praise from the Right for President Trump’s first year is getting overhyped because it’s coming primarily from culture warriors who don’t understand the intricacies of policy, not policy experts who know better.

Conservative policy wonks simply aren’t praising the president, he argues, referring to this supposed divide as the “one trick” that “explains” the trend of conservative praise for Trump. This is news to those of us familiar with some of those conservative wonks, many of whom report they are actually quite pleased with the Trump administration’s first year. We can’t help but think Drezner might have arrived at a different conclusion had he done a bit of research for his column.

But aside from asserting his own view and heavily quoting a few journalists who agree with him, Drezner does little else to substantiate his argument. The only policy expert he cites is Scott Lincicome, a trade lawyer at the Cato Institute (and a sometimes-contributor to The Federalist), who tweeted that many culture warrior conservatives are defending Trump’s first year on policy grounds, while “conservative wonks criticize it on cultural/institutional grounds.”

That’s hardly an endorsement of Drezner’s core assertion that praise for Trump’s first-year policies isn’t coming from policy experts. Lincicome himself goes on in that same thread to grade Trump in various areas, meting out everything from an A- on judicial nominations to an F on trade and immigration.

Since Drezner didn’t quote or interview any conservative policy experts for his column besides Lincicome, we decided to pick up the phone and ask a range of right-of-center policy wonks how they would grade Trump’s first year. What we found is a more positive assessment than Drezner’s column would suggest, although their opinions certainly do not represent uniform approval.

Taken together, Trump averaged a B/B- across all policy areas with the experts we surveyed. That’s a worse grade than his hard-core “culture warrior” supporters probably think he deserves, but no doubt better than the mainstream press might suspect. The results are organized by policy area below.

Health Care

Chris Pope, Manhattan Institute: B+

Pope said he can’t give Trump an A, since Trump failed to do anything about Medicaid or to repeal and replace Obamacare, but gives him high marks for opening the health insurance market by getting rid of the individual mandate and encouraging companies to expand access to short-term insurance plans that Obamacare effectively banned.

“Liberals are more appreciating how significant they are,” Pope said of the executive actions on the mandate and short-term plans. “They are significant achievements, and they will yield real benefits to people who haven’t been able to afford insurance. They really do put options on the table.”

Chris Jacobs, Juniper Research Group: C-

Jacobs gave Trump a solid rating on the regulatory side of insurance for cutting off what he called unconstitutional subsidies to insurers, approving more generic drugs to drive down pharmaceutical costs, and some of his executive action on insurance rules to make coverage more affordable. But he rated the administration’s efforts to repeal Obamacare legislatively a D-, due in part to a “lack of direction and conflicting signals” from the administration about a vision for the final product. The individual mandate repeal combined with the failure to get rid of Obamacare will do more harm than good, he said, and lead to a rise in health insurance premiums next year.


Veronique de Rugy, Mercatus Center: B+

Rugy called the Republican tax bill Trump signed “an incredible achievement,” that while not perfect “is a significant improvement” on the status quo, particularly because of the reduction in the corporate tax rate to 21 percent.

“They could have done much more on the corporate pro-growth side, had they not been doing so much on the individual side,” she said. “But even on the individual side they did a lot to get rid of exemptions. I never thought the mortgage interest deduction would be touched. I am very, very nicely surprised that the state and local tax deduction was altered so dramatically.”

Dean Stansel, Southern Methodist University: B

Stansel was less impressed with the reduction of the corporate tax rate, and noted that 21 percent was well above the rate of 15 percent Trump campaigned on. He added that the rate reductions on the individual side were also smaller than what Trump had proposed.

“As a result of these relatively modest reductions and the fact that some of them eventually expire, 10 years from now projected revenues will actually be higher than they would have been without any of the tax cuts,” Stansel said.

Grover Norquist, Americans for Tax Reform: A

Norquist commended Trump for the way he handled negotiations with Democrats and Republicans on the tax bill, and said the economic benefits of its passage and the way the White House is promoting it will help Republicans keep the House and Senate in 2018. He wanted a full repeal of the death tax and the alternative minimum tax, as well as a longer window for the cuts, but is pleased overall.

“Given what was conceivable and what was doable, absolutely happy,” he said, also noting that Trump should be graded relative to what Hillary Clinton might have done as president. “Wonderful victories that lead to a series of other victories.”

Energy and Environmental Regulations

Myron Ebell, Competitive Enterprise Institute: A 

Ebell, who headed Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition team, said Trump has done a “fantastic job” of fulfilling the numerous campaign promises he made on energy and the environment, though he expressed disappointment with the White House for leaving important political positions in the administration unfilled.

“It’s really quite stunning what he’s done,” Ebell said, pointing to United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, scrapping of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and the withdraw from the Waters of the U.S. rule. Ebell also pointed to measures to open up offshore oil and other natural resource production, which he said will make the United States a net oil and natural gas exporter.

Tom Pyle, American Energy Alliance: A

Pyle, who headed the Department of Energy transition team, said he’s particularly pleased with the “tremendous progress” Trump has made in this area, particularly in repealing the Clean Power Plan, backing out of the Paris climate deal, and rolling back Obama-era regulations that held up development projects. He also approved of Trump’s appointees, calling his EPA choice “substantively and symbolically superb,” and noting the Interior Department has exceeded his expectations.

Benjamin Zycher, American Enterprise Institute: B/B+

Zycher similarly gave Trump high marks for regulatory rollback measures on production and use of natural resources, as well as on infrastructure investment, but criticized the way he pulled out of the Paris climate deal and noted that a “failure to do something” on an endangerment finding regarding greenhouse gases will cause problems for the administration down the road.

“A vast improvement over the previous administration, but not nearly as good as it could be,” he said.

Robert Bryce, Manhattan Institute: B

Bryce conceded that Trump has brought some much-needed sanity to U.S. energy policy, including long-overdue reform of the EPA and the administrative state, and praised the administration for pushing to open the nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain. But Bryce said he only gave the president a B because, “As usual, Trump’s bombast (‘energy dominance’ sounds a bit like a cure for erectile dysfunction) undercuts his credibility.”


Christine McDaniel, Mercatus Center: C-

McDaniel criticized Trump’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, saying that will open the door wide for China to lead on trade, and said she’s displeased with the trade protections he’s extending “for a few special domestic firms” at the expense of consumers and other firms.

“China is building a trillion-dollar road across Europe, kind of in place of the TPP,” she said. “So we have really lost a big opportunity there in terms of reigning in China’s state-owned enterprises.” On extending trade protections to some firms, McDaniel added: “It stifles investment, it stifles demand, it limits competition.”

Mark J. Perry, American Enterprise Institute: F

Perry said that in his first year, Trump has shown he’s committed to pursuing “an outdated, protectionist ‘American Consumers Last’ trade policy that is putting the U.S. economy at great risk.” Perry cited the administration’s withdrawal from the TPP, threats to leave the North American Free Trade Agreement, and tariffs imposed just last week on Americans who purchase imported washing machines and solar panels. “Trump’s protectionist approach to trade is guaranteed to reduce competition, restrict choices for Americans, and raise prices for consumers,” Perry said.


Inez Feltscher Stepman, American Legislative Exchange Council: B-

Stepman commended Trump’s legislative achievement on school choice and directives such as the rollback of Obama’s Title IX guidance to universities on sexual assault, which she said encourages them to set up “sexual assault kangaroo courts.” But she said he’s not doing enough to get the federal government out of education decisions that belong to the states.

“No one, from Secretary [Betsy] DeVos to Trump himself, is talking seriously about closing the unconstitutional and unnecessary Department of Education,” she said. “Now, we probably wouldn’t have seen that from most Republican administrations, but Trump was supposed to be different, an outsider who would do things others wouldn’t consider. So far, the actions of the Trump administration in education haven’t been that different from, say, a President Jeb Bush.”

Jane Robbins, American Principles Project: C

Robbins said she’s pleased with the Obama-era policy rollbacks, and the rhetoric from the administration about giving more control to state and local governments, but said other than action on school choice, “just about everything the U.S. Department of Education is doing now is the same thing it was doing before, under Obama.”

Leslie Hiner, EdChoice: B/B+

Hiner lauded Trump’s regulatory pushback and the new law allowing parents to use 529 savings accounts to pay for private schooling, saying the B grade is only because of work left to be done. “Let’s hope children of military families and children living on tribal lands will have the freedom to choose their own school or educational resources within the year,” she said.

Foreign Policy

Jonathan Schanzer, Foundation for Defense of Democracies: B+/A-

Schanzer praised Trump’s foreign policy approach in the Middle East, particularly in fighting the Islamic State, “addressing holes and gaps” in the Iran nuclear deal, signaling a more aggressive stance toward Hezbollah, and taking on problems with the Palestinian Authority that other presidents have ignored.

“The reason he’s not getting high marks across the board is there are still significant concerns about Iran’s expansion in the Middle East, specifically in places like Iraq and Syria,” Schanzer said, “and it is still far from clear exactly where U.S. policy is headed in that regard.”

Matthew Kroenig, Georgetown University: A-

“President Trump has improved America’s position in every major geo-strategic region of the world over the past year,” Kroenig said, lauding Trump’s focus on the “power competition” with Russia and China and handling of the North Korean and Iranian nuclear threats. Kroenig also credited Trump for all but defeating ISIS. Trump loses points for inconsistent messaging and failing to more quickly fill spots in the national security bureaucracy, Kroenig said, but overall has been “quite good.”

Chris Hull, Center for Security Policy: B/incomplete

Hull said Trump developed a “spectacular foreign policy” over the course of the campaign, signaling a willingness to sacrifice sacred cows and trample red lines, but the implementation has gone sideways because he allowed establishment Republicans to take charge.

“There is an open debate in the press, on the record, about whether they’re going to implement what the president wants to do or not, with people literally calling the president a moron, with people literally saying that he is an idiot… This is happening everywhere, all through the national security apparatus,” Hull said.


Ilya Shapiro, Cato Institute: A

Shapiro praised Trump for deferring to experts in this area, particularly White House Counsel Don McGahn and leaders at the Federalist Society, whom he said have done “phenomenal work,” especially on the circuit courts, where a record 12 judges have been confirmed in Trump’s first year.

“This administration has surpassed even George W. Bush’s well-oiled machine for selecting committed and youthful originalists and textualists, and getting them through the Senate,” he said.

Carrie Severino, Judicial Crisis Network: A

“His appointments of appellate judges has been a resounding success,” Severino said. “From my perspective, this is his greatest accomplishment so far. These are people who are going to be on the bench for a generation. We still have judges serving now who are appointed by Ford and Carter. That’s how long the impact is in those kinds of judiciary picks, and Trump has chosen such outstanding nominees… And that’s leaving aside the greatest accomplishment, nominating Justice Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.”