Trump Has Been Lucky in His Enemies Cursing pols, screeching students and intolerant abortion advocates have become the face of the left.

Donald Trump’s tax-reform plan strikes me as daring. Whether it’s the daring of bright children or the daring of shrewd professionals who’ve gamed it out with the Hill remains to be seen. The simplification part is good and will be received as a balm by the taxpayers. Ronald Reagan once said even Einstein was driven to distraction by his tax forms, which explained his hair. The proposed cuts themselves are certainly big and blunt; economic and social thinkers will weigh in soon on whether they’re wise or just.

Refusing to eliminate the deductions for mortgage interest and charity was a dodging of bullets. I’m not convinced the former is fair: It’s hard to see the higher justice in treating homeowners better than renters. Maybe a real-estate lobbyist will explain. The latter was I suspect the work of the New Yorkers in the White House. Opera, ballet and theater all come out of New York, home too of the greatest museums and libraries. If the charitable deduction goes away, their contributions go down. If the greatest opera goes down in New York, that art form no longer exists in America. And a great nation must have opera. Apart from that, wealthy New Yorkers, such as people at Goldman Sachs, enjoy being on the great arts boards, and cutting the deduction is no way to accomplish that. God bless social ambition as a force for good.

Masked ActivistsThe whole thing looks like something that had to be hurriedly slapped together to put a cap on the president’s first hundred days. I wrote a highly sophisticated acquaintance who’s also a big Trump supporter to ask if she liked the plan. The response: “I am getting tired of biggest wall, biggest bomb, biggest tax cut. How about something that can actually happen.”

Now to a hundred-day summation—three thoughts after observing the past three months.

If this thing works—if the Trump administration is judged by history as having enjoyed some degree of success—it will definitively open up the U.S. political system in a wholly new way. Before Mr. Trump it was generally agreed you had to be a professional politician or a general to win the presidency. Mr. Trump changed that. If he succeeds in office it will stay changed. Candidates for president will be able to be . . . anything. You can be a great historian or a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. You can be a Silicon Valley billionaire. You can be Oprah, The Rock, or Kellyanne. The system will attract a lot of fresh, needed, surprising talent, and also a lot of nuts and poseurs.

But again, only if Mr. Trump succeeds. If he doesn’t, if he’s a spectacular failure, America will probably never go outside the system like this again, or not in our lifetimes.

If the Trump administration ends in failure or disaster, we will realize in retrospect that 2016 handed us a perfect historical irony. Donald Trump was the only Republican who could have won the GOP nomination. He was the shock the base wanted, the strange, magical Wonder Pony who could break through a broken system. He was also the only Republican who could have won the general election.

But he could also prove to be the only Republican who could not succeed in office. The others—John Kasich, Jeb Bush—actually knew how to govern, knew all the systems and traditions, knew what was required by high office and what was not allowed.

So the only one who could win was the only one who couldn’t do the job. If that happens, it will be some kind of irony, if irony’s the word.

I end with a lyric from the old show “Pippin”: “A simple rule that every good man knows by heart / It’s smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart.”

Mr. Trump has struggled so colorfully the past three months, we’ve barely noticed his great good luck—that in that time the Democratic Party and the progressive left have been having a very public nervous breakdown. The new head of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, performs unhinged diatribes. He told an audience in Las Vegas that “Trump doesn’t give a sh— about health care.” In a Maine speech, “They call it a skinny budget. I call it a sh—y budget.” In Newark, he said Republicans “don’t give a sh— about people.”

This is said to be an attempt to get down with millennials. I know a lot of millennials and they’re not idiots, so that won’t work.

The perennially sunny Rep. Maxine Waters of California called Mr. Trump’s cabinet “a bunch of scumbags.” New York’s junior Democratic senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, has taken to using the F-word in interviews.

I thought Mr. Trump was supposed to be the loudmouth vulgarian who swears in public. They are aping what they profess to hate. They excoriated him for lowering the bar. Now look at them.

And they’re doing it because they have nothing else—not a plan, not a program, not a philosophy that can be uttered.

The closest they got to meaning recently was when Mr. Perez found it helpful to say, of a Democratic mayoral candidate who’d backed some pro-life bills, that that kind of thinking had no place in the party. Bernie Sanders rightly called this out as madness. You can’t do this “if we’re going to become a 50-state party.”

Imagine a great, lost party defining itself by who it’s throwing out. They’re like the Republicans the past 20 years, throwing people out for opposing Iraq or George W. Bush, or for not joining NeverTrump. Where does this get you? It gets you to where we are.

That most entrenched bastion of the progressive left, America’s great universities, has been swept by . . . well, one hardly knows what to call it. “Political correctness” is too old and doesn’t do it justice. It is a hysteria—a screeching, ignorant wave of sometimes violent intolerance for free speech. It is mortifying to see those who lead great universities cower in fear of it, attempt to placate it, instead of stopping it.

When I see tapes of the protests and riots at schools like Berkeley, Middlebury, Claremont McKenna and Yale, it doesn’t have the feel of something that happens in politics. It has the special brew of malice and personal instability seen in the Salem witch trials. It sent me back to rereading Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” Heather Mac Donald danced with the devil! Charles Murray put the needle in the poppet! As in 17th-century Salem, the accusers have no proof of anything because they don’t know, read or comprehend anything.

The cursing pols, the anathematizing abortion advocates, the screeching students—they are now the face of the progressive left.

This is what America sees now as the face of the Democratic Party. It is a party blowing itself up whose only hope is that Donald Trump blows up first.

He may not be lucky in all of his decisions or staffers, or in his own immaturities and dramas. But hand it to him a hundred days in: He’s lucky in his main foes.

Republicans, Learn the Limits of Loyalty Make clear you want to work with Trump on policy but don’t defend his bad behavior.

No sooner do you remember never to join a pile-on than you wonder if you shouldn’t start one. Bill O’Reilly’s departure this week from Fox News is a real blow to piggishness, and I believe that must be said. He has denied all allegations, but the number of them over the years, and the $13 million in reported payouts, suggests a clear and obvious pattern of sexual harassment. This follows the retirement of Roger Ailes, who left under a similar cloud. I don’t know what was in the water over there, but it wasn’t good, it was poisonous, and I’m glad they’re doing environmental cleanup.

A lot of life is murky. Good things can come from mixed motives, bad things from clean ones. You can hold in your head the knowledge that all prominent conservatives are, essentially, a target in a media matrix dominated by ideological views that are not conservative—isn’t that a nice way to say it?—and yet be happy something bad has been thwarted. You can be aware that the exposé that triggered Mr. O’Reilly’s fall came in the form of a deeply reported piece in this newspaper’s chief competitor—it is the second-greatest newspaper in America—and you can suspect its focus on a Fox News star was fueled, at least in part, by both animal spirits and ideological animus. But you can still feel satisfaction that a culture of looking the other way has for the moment been defeated.

And again, this ought to be said. It is not conservative to be a pig. It is piggish to be a pig. You owe pigs nothing. So say the obvious.

Senator Joni Ernst

Senator Joni Ernst

We thus segue to the observation that Republican officeholders should by now have figured out how to speak about our ever-interesting president, and most have not. They think since he is a Republican and they are Republican, they must defend him on all things. They are looking at it wrong. He is Donald Trump. He is not “a Republican.” He is a wholly unusual historical figure who happened to them, and who now heads their party. They owe him an eager and open-minded willingness to work with him, to create helpful legislation, to join in debate and support him on areas of mutual conviction. They do not owe him a thing in terms of covering for his gaffes or oddnesses, mistakes or failures. They should not defend him on his tax returns unless they think he is right not to reveal them. They should not defend him on his refusal to make public the White House visitor’s logs—unless, bizarrely, they think that constitutes good public policy.

Being loyal isn’t being a lickspittle.

The president has a base of support. They’re with him and will give him time before they detach—if they detach. They hope for big, serious changes in policy. But they are not children. They are not unaware of his faults and weaknesses. Treat them with respect by speaking to them like adults.

Make clear you want to work with Mr. Trump but won’t cover for him. If the president doesn’t like it, and lashes out, so what? He’ll tweet that you’re not attractive. Laugh and say: “That’s what my mother said. But I have great hopes we can work together to reform our tax system. Best, Unattractive Tom.”

The first to break the code has been Iowa’s junior senator, Joni Ernst. This week she was back home doing her 99-county tour. In a community center in Wall Lake she was peppered with questions about Mr. Trump. Asked about his showy meetings with foreign leaders at Mar-a-Lago, she gently replied: “I do wish he would spend more time in Washington, D.C. That is what we have the White House for.” She conceded his “character flaws.” She said she supports “a majority of the policies versus the actual person.”

In a telephone interview this week she noted there was no “secret meaning” in her Mar-a-Lago criticism. “He spends too much money coming and going, and if we’re preaching about spending, we need to be following that.” One of the first questions in Wall Lake came from an anti-Trump constituent. He asked Ms. Ernst about “your president.” She responded, “It is our president. Mike Pence is our vice president.” She added, “Just as Barack Obama was my president and my commander in chief.” A man asked how she could support a president who treats women as he does. “I said we would be hard pressed to find a president who doesn’t have flaws, I can’t excuse him.”

She is not, she told me, distancing herself from the president. “I’m just pointing out what I’ve observed in response to honest questions Iowans are asking. He’s my president. I will work with him. But we have to be honest, he is a flawed human being, just like everyone else.”

I close with a connected thought, on the president’s tweets. He hasn’t tweeted anything crazy lately, but he surely will again. He seems to grow anxious when he has an unexpressed thought. The next time he does it, reporters will rush as they always do to administration officials and Republican members of Congress, and demand a response.

Staffers and Hill people have mostly felt personally, professionally and politically obliged to refrain from criticizing the tweets.

They should stop feeling that way. They should not try to explain and defend. It does them no good—and it does him no good.

Staffers, throw yourself on the grenade. When pressed for a response, try: “Those of us who care about the president are often puzzled by his tendency to send out these sometimes strange and obnoxious thoughts. I wish he wouldn’t. You’ll have to ask him about it in the next press conference. I myself don’t do tweet commentary. I leave that to you.” If you are a congressman or senator and the president decides to tweet about Arnold Schwarzenegger, Miss Universe or Kim Jong Un, consider saying this: “You’ll have to take that up with the president. I think he sounds like a fool.”

If you’re a staffer and say that, you’ll get fired. But you’ll have shown some style and helped the country. You’ll for the first time get some respect, and will be able to support your family and go on to a good living while having rescued your reputation. The first paragraph of your obituary, years hence, will say you were fired for speaking the truth, not that you were embarrassing back in the Trump era.

It will help the president. He doesn’t really like to do things he knows will hurt him, but he has a hard time retaining the information that his tweets have that effect. He thinks they helped make him president and help him govern. He’s wrong. After the first firing he’ll realize there’ll be a price to the second and third.

When being loyal involves not stating obvious truths, maybe you’re being loyal to the wrong thing.

Being truthful is moral and good. It comes, for both speaker and listener, as a refreshment. Or in the practical, strategic language political figures respect, candor is the new cleverness. Everyone’s had it with evasions and circumlocutions. Stop. Say it true and keep walking.

Does Steve Bannon Have Something to Offer? In 2014 the beleaguered White House aide raised important moral questions about today’s capitalism.

My late friend Bill Safire, the tough and joyous New York Times columnist, once gave me good advice. I was not then a newspaper columnist, but he’d apparently decided I would be. This is what he said: Never join a pile-on, always hit ’em when they’re up. Don’t criticize the person who’s already being attacked. What’s the fun in that, where’s the valor? Hit them when they’re flying high and it takes some guts.

So, in the matter of Steve Bannon:

I think we can agree he brings a certain amount of disorder. They say he’s rough and tough, and there’s no reason to doubt it. They say he leaks like a sieve and disparages his rivals, and this can be assumed to be correct: They all do that in this White House. He is accused of saying incendiary things and that is true. A week into the administration he told Michael Grynbaum of the Times the media should “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” “I love a gunfight,” he reportedly said in the middle of his latest difficulties. When he tried to muscle members of the Freedom Caucus to vote for the ObamaCare replacement bill, a congressman blandly replied, “You know, the last time someone ordered me to do something I was 18 years old, and it was my daddy, and I didn’t listen to him, either.” When I said a while back that some of the president’s aides are outlandish, and confuse strength with aggression, he was in mind.

But there’s something low, unseemly and ugly in the efforts to take him out so publicly and humiliatingly, to turn him into a human oil spot on the tarmac—this not only from his putative colleagues but now even the president. “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late,” Mr. Trump purred to the New York Post’s Michael Goodwin.

So let’s take a look at something impressive Mr. Bannon has done. I’ve been meaning to write of it for a while. In 2014 he did a live Skype interview for a conference on poverty at the Vatican. BuzzFeed ran it during the campaign under the headline “This Is How Steve Bannon Sees the Entire World.”

It shows an interesting mind at work.

The West is currently facing a “crisis of capitalism,” he said. The world was able to recover after the world wars in part thanks to “an enlightened form of capitalism” that generated “tremendous wealth” broadly distributed among all classes. This capitalism was shaped by “the underlying spiritual and moral foundations . . . of Judeo-Christian belief.” Successful capitalists were often either “active participants in the Jewish faith” or “active participants in the Christian faith.” They operated on a kind of moral patrimony, part tradition, part religious teaching. But now the West has become more secular. Capitalism as a result has grown “unmoored” and is going “partly off track.”

He speaks of two “disturbing” strands. “One is state-sponsored capitalism,” as in China and Russia. We also, to a degree, see it in America. This is “a brutal form of capitalism” in which wealth and value are distributed to “a very small subset of people.” It is connected to crony capitalism. He criticizes the Republican Party as “really a collection of crony capitalists that feel they have a different set of rules of how they’re going to comport themselves.”

The other disturbing strand is “libertarian capitalism,” which “really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost.” He saw this strand up close when he was on Wall Street, at Goldman Sachs . There he saw “the securitization of everything” and an attitude in which “people are looked at as commodities.”
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Capitalists, he said, now must ask: “What is the purpose of whatever I’m doing with this wealth? What is the purpose of what I’m doing with the ability that God has given us . . . to actually be a creator of jobs and a creator of wealth?”

With both these strands, he says, the middle class loses ground. This has contributed to the “global revolt” of populism and nationalism. That revolt was fueled, too, by the financial crisis of 2008. None of those responsible on Wall Street were called to account: “No bonuses and none of their equity was taken.” The taxes of the middle class were used to bail them out.

There’s more in the conversation, which lasted 50 minutes and included the problem of racist and anti-Semitic overtones in populist movements. But it’s a thoughtful, serious talk, and its themes would reverberate in the 2016 election.

You can see Mr. Bannon’s basic or developing political and economic philosophy as half-baked, fully baked, or likely to explode in the oven. And it is fair to note his views haven’t seemed to gel or produce very much in the first dozen weeks of the Trump era.

But what Mr. Bannon offered in the interview was a point of view that was publicly declared and could be debated.

What will take its place if he leaves the White House or recedes as a figure? What worldview will prevail, to the extent Mr. Trump does worldviews? Policy changes accompanying Mr. Bannon’s diminishment this week included the president’s speaking approvingly of the Export-Import Bank and NATO, declaring that China isn’t a currency manipulator after all, suggesting the dollar may be too strong, and hitting Syria and Afghanistan.

None of that sounds like Candidate Trump.

It is possible what we are seeing is simply the rise of a more moderate or conciliatory or establishment Trump White House. But it also looks like the rise of the Wall Street Mr. Bannon painted as tending to see people as commodities. Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, is said to be Mr. Bannon’s most effective internal foe. He is the new rising figure. There are many Wall Street folk—some from Messrs. Bannon and Cohn’s old stomping ground, Goldman Sachs—in influential administration posts. They don’t come across as the kind of people who exhaust themselves pondering the meaning of the historical moment or tracing societal stresses and potential responses.

Will all these changes, in policy and perhaps personnel, hurt Mr. Trump? Probably a little. But nothing dramatic right now, because his supporters knew they were making an unusual choice in making him president, and they will give him time.

But if the Trump White House is itself changing dramatically, we’ll look back on this week as the moment the change became apparent.

I end with Safire, who’s been gone eight years. I still miss him, and I thought of him this week when I received good news. He’d received the same news 39 years before. I think he’d be happy, clap me on the back, call me kid. And I’m telling you the first chance he got to take a deserved shot, he’d take it. And if instead I’d endured some personal or professional loss, he’d be first one on the phone.

He had style. Style is good.

Beautiful Easter and Passover to my readers, who wrote in this week and reminded me how beautiful they are. I know that’s corny, but sometimes life is corny.

What’s Become of the American Dream? Part of the problem is definitional. It isn’t just about houses, cars and material prosperity.

I want to think aloud about the American dream. People have been saying for a while that it’s dead. It’s not, but it needs strengthening. We should start by saying what it means, which is something we’ve gotten mixed up about. I know its definition because I grew up in the heart of it and remember how people had long understood it. The American dream is the belief, held by generation after generation since our beginning and reanimated over the decades by waves of immigrants, that here you can start from anywhere and become anything. In America you can rise to the heights no matter where and in what circumstances you began. You can go from the bottom to the top.

Behind the dream was another belief: America was uniquely free, egalitarian and arranged so as to welcome talent. Lincoln was elected president in part because his supporters brought lengths of crude split-rails to the Republican National Convention in Chicago in 1860. They held the rails high and paraded them in a floor demonstration to tell everyone: This guy was nothing but a frontier rail splitter, a laborer, a backwoods nobody. Now he will be president. What a country. What a dream.

Housing TractThis distinguished America from old Europe, from which it had kicked away. There titles, families and inherited wealth dictated standing: If you had them, you’d always be at the top. If you didn’t, you’d always be at the bottom. That static system bred resentment. We would have a dynamic one that bred hope.

You can give a dozen examples, and perhaps you are one, of Americans who turned a brilliant system into a lived-out triumph. Thomas Edison, the seventh child of modest folk in Michigan and half-deaf to boot, filled the greatest cities in the world with electric light. Barbara Stanwyck was from working-class Brooklyn. Her mother died, her father skipped town, and she was raised by relatives and foster parents. She went on to a half-century career as a magnetic actress of stage and screen; in 1944 she was the highest-paid woman in America. Jonas Salk was a hero of my childhood. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland who settled in East Harlem—again, working-class nobodies. Naturally young Jonas, an American, scoped out the true facts of his time and place and thought: I’ll be a great lawyer. His mother is reported to have said no, a doctor. He went on to cure polio. We used to talk about him at the public school when we waited in line for the vaccine.

In America so many paths were offered! But then a big nation that is a great one literally has a lot of paths.

The American dream was about aspiration and the possibility that, with dedication and focus, it could be fulfilled. But the American dream was not about material things—houses, cars, a guarantee of future increase. That’s the construction we put on it now. It’s wrong. A big house could be the product of the dream, if that’s what you wanted, but the house itself was not the dream. You could, acting on your vision of the dream, read, learn, hold a modest job and rent a home, but at town council meetings you could stand, lead with wisdom and knowledge, and become a figure of local respect. Maybe the respect was your dream.

Stanwyck became rich, Salk revered. Both realized the dream.

How did we get the definition mixed up?

I think part of the answer is: Grandpa. He’d sit on the front stoop in Levittown in the 1950s. A sunny day, the kids are tripping by, there’s a tree in the yard and bikes on the street and a car in the front. He was born in Sicily or Donegal or Dubrovnik, he came here with one change of clothes tied in a cloth and slung on his back, he didn’t even speak English, and now look—his grandkids with the bikes. “This is the American dream,” he says. And the kids, listening, looked around, saw the houses and the car, and thought: He means the American dream is things. By inference, the healthier and more enduring the dream, the bigger the houses get, the more expensive the cars. (They went on to become sociologists and journalists.)

But that of course is not what Grandpa meant. He meant: I started with nothing and this place let me and mine rise. The American dream was not only about materialism, but material things could be, and often were, its fruits.

The American dream was never fully realized, not by a long shot, and we all know this. The original sin of America, slavery, meant some of the oldest Americans were brutally excluded from it. The dream is best understood as a continuing project requiring constant repair and expansion, with an eye to removing barriers and roadblocks for all.

Many reasons are put forward in the argument over whether the American Dream is over (no) or ailing (yes) or was always divisive (no—dreams keep nations together). We see income inequality, as the wealthy prosper while the middle class grinds away and the working class slips away. There is a widening distance, literally, between the rich and the poor. Once the richest man in town lived nearby, on the nicest street on the right side of the tracks. Now he’s decamped to a loft in SoHo. “The big sort” has become sociocultural apartheid. It’s globalization, it’s the decline in the power of private-sector unions and the brakes they applied.

What ails the dream is a worthy debate. I’d include this: The dream requires adults who can launch kids sturdily into Dream-land.

When kids have one or two parents who are functioning, reliable, affectionate—who will stand in line for the charter-school lottery, who will fill out the forms, who will see that the football uniform gets washed and is folded on the stairs in the morning—there’s a good chance they’ll be OK. If you come from that now, it’s like being born on third base and being able to hit a triple. You’ll be able to pursue the dream.

But I see kids who don’t have that person, who are from families or arrangements that didn’t cohere, who have no one to stand in line for them or get them up in the morning. What I see more and more in America is damaged or absent parents. We all know what’s said in this part—drugs, family breakup. Poor parenting is not a new story in human history, and has never been new in America. But insufficient parents used to be able to tell their kids to go out, go play in America, go play in its culture. And the old aspirational culture, the one of the American dream, could counter a lot. Now we have stressed kids operating within a nihilistic popular culture that can harm them. So these kids have nothing—not the example of a functioning family and not the comfort of a culture into which they can safely escape.

This is not a failure of policy but a failure of love. And it’s hard to change national policy on a problem like that.

High Anxiety Over Health-Care Reform ObamaCare proved to be a catastrophic victory. The Republican plan had the makings of another one.

Washington

What politicians, those hardy folk, don’t understand about health care is how anxious it makes their constituents. Not suspicious, not obstinate, but anxious. Because unlike such policy questions as tax reform, health care can be an immediate life-or-death issue for you. It has to do with whether, when, and where you can get the chemo if you’re sick, and how long they’ll let you stay in the hospital when you have nobody, or nobody reliable and nearby, to care for you. To make it worse, the issue is all hopelessly complicated and complex and pits you as an individual against huge institutions—the insurance company that doesn’t answer the phone, the hospital that says “I’m afraid that’s not covered”—and you have to make the right decisions.

It’s all on you.

Speaker Paul Ryan and Mick Mulvaney

Speaker Paul Ryan and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney

Politicians don’t understand all this, in part because they and their families are well-covered on a government insurance policy, and they have staff to put in the claim and argue with the insurance company, which, when it’s a congressman calling, answers the phone in one quick hurry. They don’t know it’s not easy for everyone else. Or rather they know on some abstract level but forget in the day-to-day, as one does with abstractions.

But I want to speak of how it’s all on you: You don’t want to be seen—by others, by yourself—as someone who couldn’t make the right decisions for yourself and your family. “She didn’t know she needed Part B.” “She got the supplement that says she can’t be treated in Jersey.” You don’t want to be humiliated. “What a dope.” “What fatal lack of sophistication.”

And then these jokers in Congress come along. Seven years ago it’s Democrats: “Wow, we’re so supercompetent, we’ll make it better!” And suddenly you lose your doctor or your coverage, or your premiums spike, and it’s a mess. They can’t even make the website work. And you’re anxious, and you have to renavigate an entire opaque empire of rules and passive-aggressive clerks. It’s a shadow on your life.

And then it settles down, as things do after seven years. You hate the system, but it is what it is and you’re used to it. And now these new jokers come along and say, “We’ll make it nice, trust us!” And it’s all big and complicated—so complicated the president negotiating it appears to have no idea what he’s saying yes or no to. But the effects and implications of his decisions will all be left on you. And you watch from the corner of your eye as you pass the TV, and suddenly your blood pressure’s spiking again. For you it’s all more anxiety and dishevelment and confusion, but in a new package, this time delivered by Republicans.

When all you want is the card in the wallet so when you’re strapped to the gurney in the emergency room, they’ll see it and they’ll say the word you want to hear: “Covered.” Then you can happily pass out.

People need simplicity and clarity. They deserve it. They’ll pay for it as best they can, a lot if they have to. But they need not to be jerked around anymore.

And that is what Congress doesn’t know.

We go now to the failure of the ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill.

Politically it’s all obvious. For the new administration it is a loss and a significant one. It has damaged the new president’s prestige. Every president until he fails has the aura of unused power. Boy, when I use it, you’re gonna see muscle. He used it. No muscle. Fatal? No. Damaging and diminishing? Yes. It is an embarrassment too for Speaker Paul Ryan. Together they could not get a win on the board after they threw everything they have into it. This does not speak well for everything they have.

They picked the wrong issue at the wrong time and pursued it in the wrong way. (“Constituent, should we focus on a better tax system or on health care?” “Um, if you go with health care can it include suicide coverage?”)

The failure of the bill demonstrated something no president, especially a new one, ever wants made public. That is that Republicans in the House do not really fear him.

When members of your party fear you, they are fearing one thing: your popularity. You can harness it to hurt them if they’re uncooperative. But Mr. Trump doesn’t have that much popularity, as they know. He’s at 40% or thereabouts in his approval numbers. And on this bill he couldn’t tell his supporters to go out and cream congressmen who would vote against him, because his own supporters don’t much like the bill.

The central dynamic behind the bill’s difficulties is that the Republican conference in the House is divided between institutionalists, who support the leadership; conservatives, who found the bill too soft; and moderates, who found it too hard. By putting forward the bill, they allowed this division—which was wholly predictable and may be irreconcilable—to play out as a public breakdown rather than an impasse.

The president made a political mistake in throwing his lot with the leadership, and then conservatives, not Republican moderates, and then Democrats.

A mere poll probably contributed to the collapse of support. That would be the Quinnipiac survey published Thursday, just hours before the delay in the vote. It found the repeal-and-replace bill highly unpopular. Only 17% of respondents approved of the bill, with 56% opposed and 26% undecided. Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur, reading the cross tabs, noted on Twitter that the bill was 26 points underwater among noncollege whites, and an astounding 46 points underwater among voters 50 to 64. “This is Trump’s base,” Mr. Kapur noted.

When your own base doesn’t like the bill on which you’ve staked your early legislative prestige, you have made a political error of the first order.

Seven years ago, when ObamaCare was on its way to passing with not a single Republican vote, I called it a catastrophic victory. It wouldn’t work; the government would not be able to execute; it was a Rube Goldberg machine. It was a bill created not by visionaries or political masters but by technocrats—and the worst kind of technocrat, the one who sees himself as a secret visionary. On top of that the Democrats would always own it, and when the program failed, Republicans would have no motivation to help them save it.

That is what RyanCare or TrumpCare would have been if it had passed: a catastrophic victory. No Democratic support, an opaque and impossible-to-understand bill, one that is complex and complicated, one that would be unpopular back home. And created by technocrats who think themselves visionaries.

Mr. Trump warned House Republicans they would lose their seats next year if they vote “no.” They judged they’d lose their seats in 2018 if they voted “yes.”

When Mr. Trump wins, he wins big, and when he flops, he flops big. He just did.

A proper White House reaction? Not anger, bluff and bluster, not finger-pointing or defensiveness but modesty and calm. And this: Offer to work with Democrats and moderate Republicans to create legislation that will help and can pass.Save

Mistakes, He’s Made a Few Too Many Crisis will inevitably strike, so America needs stability and strength. Will Trump be ready?

Near the end of the campaign I wrote a column called “Imagine a Sane Donald Trump,” lamenting that I believed he was crazy, and too bad. Too bad because his broad policy assertions, or impulses, suggested he understood that 2008 and the years just after (the crash and the weak recovery) had changed everything in America, and that the country was going to choose, in coming decades, one of two paths—a moderate populism or socialism—and that the former was vastly to be preferred, for reasons of the nation’s health. A gifted politician could make his party the leader toward that path, which includes being supportive and encouraging of business but willing to harness government to alleviate the distress of the abandoned working class and the anxious middle class; strong on defense but neither aggressive nor dreamy in world affairs; realistic and nonradical on social issues while unmistakably committed to protecting the freedoms of the greatest cohering force in America, its churches; and aware that our nation’s immigration reality was a scandal created by both parties, and must be redressed.

Too Many MistakesYou could discern, listening to his interviews and speeches, that this was more or less where Donald Trump stood. If a politician governed along those lines, he could help bring forward a politics more pertinent to the times, end brain-dead fixations, force both parties to question their ways of operating, and possibly push our national politics in a more productive direction. All this in my view would be good.

Undergirding my thinking is the sense that a big bad day is coming—that we have too many enemies, and some of them have the talent to hurt us, and one or more inevitably will. Whatever helps hold us together now will help hold us together then, when we’re under severe pressure.

Behind that thought is the observation that our country is stressed to the point of fracture culturally, economically, politically, spiritually. We find it hard to hold together on a peaceful day, never mind a violent one. And so right now we must institute as much good feeling and cooperation in Washington as we can. The nation longs for examples of constructiveness and capability. We’ve got to keep the long view in mind.

The priority is stabilizing and strengthening what we have, and encouraging wherever possible an atmosphere of peacefulness and respect.

That’s where I am, or rather what I think is politically desirable.

Looking at the administration 70 days in, things do not, in these areas, look promising. There’s too much gravitational pull to the president’s accumulated mistakes.

His stupid tweets have now resulted in the Russia probe. That will help opioid addicts in Ohio. This Thursday he may have launched a Republican civil war: The Freedom Caucus had better “get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & the Dems, in 2018!” That will help promote harmony. His staff has failed to absorb the obvious fact that Mr. Trump was so outsized, colorful, and freakish a character that their primary job, and an easy one it was, was to be the opposite—sober, low-key, reassuring. Instead they seemed to compete with him for outlandishness.

Whatever your feelings and views, whatever was said behind closed doors, in the photo-op the president of the United States must shake the German chancellor’s hand. Not only because you are a gentleman, not only because it is your job to represent America with grace, but because a baseline requirement of your office is to show public respect for a great nation with which we have a history, part of that history constituting a jewel in the crown of 20th-century world diplomacy.

It amazes me that in his dealings with the health-care bill Mr. Trump revealed that he has no deep knowledge of who his base is, who his people are. I’ve never seen that in politics. But Mr. Trump’s supporters didn’t like the bill. If they had wanted a Republican president who deals only with the right, to produce a rightist bill, they would have chosen Ted Cruz. Instead they chose someone outside conservatism who backed big-ticket spending on infrastructure and opposed cutting entitlements, which suggested he’d be working with Democrats, too.

A president dealing with a national issue that arouses anxieties has to take time and speak repeatedly on the plan and the goal, with the kind of specificity that encourages confidence. “You win the argument, then you win legislatively,” Newt Gingrich said in an interview this week, paraphrasing Margaret Thatcher.

And a president must always appear to be leading, not meekly tagging leaders within the Congress.

Seventy days is only 70 days. Mr. Trump’s supporters will give him time. During the campaign I spoke often to a friend in north Georgia, a Trump supporter who was a Democrat and voted for Barack Obama. She is unshaken. Mr. Trump is “making the kind of mistakes a new president makes,” she says now. “He’s having growing pains. Because he’s not a politician.”

He’s not. But he is the holder of the highest political office in the land, which requires some political discipline.

Whenever I used to have disagreements with passionate pro-Trump people, I’d hear their arguments, weigh their logic and grievances. I realized after a while that in every conversation we always brought different experiences to the table. I had worked in a White House. I had personally observed its deeper realities and requirements. Their sense of how a White House works came from news shows and reading, and also from TV shows such as “House of Cards” and “Scandal.” Those are dark, cynical shows that more or less suggest anyone can be president. I don’t mean that in the nice way. Those programs don’t convey how a White House is an organism demanding of true depth, of serious people, real professionals. A president has to be a serious person too, and not only an amusing or stimulating talker, or the object of a dream.

Robert Sherwood, the playwright who was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speechwriter throughout the war, saw him as subtle, high-minded, and one of the great “showmen” of presidential history. Sherwood’s biographer, Harriet Hyman Alonso, quotes Sherwood on how sometimes FDR spoke to him “as if he were an actor who had been reading my lines.” After a speech in Philadelphia, the president asked Sherwood if he thought the timing in a section of the speech was good. Sherwood called it perfect. Roosevelt then gave him “one of his sly looks and asked, ‘Do you think [Alfred] Lunt could have done it any better?’ ” Lunt was the great stage actor of the day.

That is the public part of the presidency, which we see so much now that we think it’s all there is. But there is a private presidency. It is in private that Mr. Trump does his tweeting. It is in private, in the office, that a crisis comes over the transom, and is announced by the national security adviser. Maybe the mad boy-king of North Korea will decide it’s a good day to see if his missiles can hit Los Angeles. Maybe a sleeper cell of terrorists will decide it’s a good day to show it’s woke.

Crisis reveals the character, the essential nature of a White House. Seventy days in, that is my worry.

Reach Across the Aisle, Mr. President For health-care reform to succeed, it requires buy-in and compromise from both parties.

All the emphasis seems to be on cutting. We will cut CPB, NPR, NEA.

Why aren’t we talking about growing and building and knocking down barriers? Why aren’t we talking about jobs and a boom and reforming regulation and taxes so people can build and invest?

Is cutting the absolute No. 1 priority right now? In a country that is, in Pope Francis’ famous characterization of the modern world, “a field hospital after battle”? Is that what the Republican party wants to lead with? Why isn’t the priority unleashing, getting past limits, pushing toward dynamism and expansion?

All these old arguments—we have to have them now? Why? Because it’s important for a party to prove it doesn’t know what time it is?

How about a little prudence and patience? The priorities should be jobs, growth, social cohesion and an atmosphere, in Washington, of constructiveness. We don’t need any new culture wars—we’ve got enough, thanks! Is the worst thing that could happen in the world right now that a kid from New Jersey can come into Manhattan and see an off-Broadway show seeded with a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts? No, that’s not the worst thing that could happen!

Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi

President Donald Trump and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi

The worst that could happen is that Congress is so exhausted as an institution, everyone’s ideologies so played out, that they’re all just playing a part, going through the motions, mindlessly replicating past battles in hope of some new reward.

Really, this week, that’s how it looks to me.

I am among those who think it absurd that Republicans on Capitol Hill decided to throw their initial attention on a hopelessly complex and convoluted health-care bill, and for procedural reasons so obscure they sound like Stockholm syndrome: “We must pay for the cuts or we blow up in reconciliation.” How can you expect people to follow you when they can’t even understand the marching orders, or why they should take the hill? And focusing on the replacement only highlighted party fissures.

The party leadership appears to have lost control of events. They view politics as the art of the possible, which it is, but they have a highly constricted sense of the possibilities. They put me in mind of the observation that a great leader has more in common with an artist than an economist. Economists drill deep in narrow fields, but the artist’s view is more expansive; he’s more able to grasp the big picture, and see how it is changing. The GOP leadership needs a greater artistic sense. Maybe they can put in for a grant from the NEA before it’s too late.

The leadership’s foes on the right comport themselves like the original uncompromised men. They are, to their credit, almost alone in their willingness to declare their philosophical predicates and resultant policy commitments. But they are supporting players in the drama, their numbers are not growing, and there’s something exhausted about them, too.

There is a third group emerging that doesn’t have a name. They see themselves not as philosophers or ideologues but as people who live in reality. Some are tough-eyed: Americans will never give up what they’ve come to see as an entitlement. Some look at the country around them and see crises—in employment, drug abuse, family formation, education. This is no time to make things harder for people, even for a while. Some are merely practical: ObamaCare helped some of their constituents and jerked others around with lost coverage and jacked-up deductibles. A fix can’t just spread the misery around in a new way.

So far they’re called moderates. I asked one of these, an officeholder who cares about mental-health needs and the opioid epidemic, if he was experiencing himself as a populist. He said he has in the past been called a “positive populist.” which he liked: It suggested a realistic yet generous assessment of the actual lives of his constituents, joined with “a can-do spirit that we can help each other individually and with the government.” But “negative populism,” carries the connotation of darkness and resentment: “Someone took something from me.” So he sticks with the label Republican.

President Trump should have been the leader of this group but threw his lot with the congressional leadership. That may be changing. Wednesday night he told Tucker Carlson on Fox News that the bill is “very preliminary” and can be “negotiated” down the road. “We will take care of our people or I’m not signing it, OK?” Which is interesting because it contradicted Speaker Paul Ryan, who said March 6: “It’s not that this is open for negotiation.”

The president should confound expectations, pivot, and turn to the Democrats for a bipartisan deal.

Here is the tradition. If you are Franklin Roosevelt in 1935 and you want to create Social Security—an act that affects Americans very personally—you get the other party in on it. You need them co-owning it, invested in it. You want the American people saying, “Congress did this,” not “the Democrats did this,” because if they say the latter the reform will always divide. FDR got 81 Republicans to vote for it in the House, and 284 Democrats. The same with Medicare in 1965: Lyndon Johnson did all he could to get the GOP on board. A majority of House Republicans supported it.

Barack Obama, full of himself after his 2008 victory and surrounded by triumphalist House Democrats, ignored the teaching of history and passed ObamaCare without a single Republican vote. The Democrats would get all the credit. In time they got all the blame. Republicans had no incentive to bail them out.

But the health-care system, as Ohio Gov. John Kasich has observed, is crucial. The Democrats must be in on the process to achieve “true and lasting reform.”

No doubt Democrats would clean up the program along more liberal lines than Republicans, which would please their progressive base. But it would also please many in Mr. Trump’s base.

If it worked, Mr. Trump would crow he’s made the first big bipartisan deal in a generation—it’s a new day. It might help on future bipartisan efforts, such as infrastructure spending. And he can make it up to Republicans with conservative regulatory and tax reform.

It would be no scandal if the president threw in with Democrats and moderate Republicans at the expense of Republican leadership. He’s always been philosophically unreliable, his commitments ever-changeable. Everyone knows this. The American people hired him knowing it.

His supporters would forgive a failed attempt to replace ObamaCare along Republican lines. But they wouldn’t forgive a bad bill that succeeds.

In a telephone interview Mr. Kasich said, “Ronald Reagan made deals with Tip O’Neill on Social Security.” All the big reforms of the past—of welfare, of the Pentagon—were bipartisan efforts. Progress will come when both parties end “the civil war” over health care. Bipartisanship must come back if things are to work.

As he spoke I thought: a bipartisan deal on health care would also be a boost to the national morale. It wouldn’t be about constricting and cutting. It would feel expansive, constructive, even hopeful.

House Republicans Repeat an Obama Error Like the Democrats in 2009, the majority party’s priorities aren’t responsive to the moment.

Washington

It is challenging for important Republicans on Capitol Hill now. They are leading their party at a time when it is changing and the country has changed. There are fissures in terms of what they believe and what they want. There is no shared, overarching sense of the meaning and purpose of the Republican Party, no agreed-upon blueprint from which to operate.

Most of them know that something substantial happened in 2016, when half, and then considerably more than half, of the Republican base followed Donald Trump, along with a great many Democrats. But they are still uncertain of the meaning of the event. I suggested to a Capitol Hill figure last week that it was a populist wave and the future of the Republican Party is moderate populism. He answered that in fact the president, in his famous rallies, was often simply road-testing ideas and applause lines, adopting what got cheers and dropping what didn’t. He’d personally seen this. I thought: I’m sure you saw what you saw, but what you are noting is Mr. Trump’s cynicism when what matters is what the crowds agreed with—what they applauded. When he would say, seemingly in passing, that he won’t touch Medicare or Social Security, people are in enough trouble and a deal’s a deal, everyone—Republicans, Democrats—cheered. Because they are in financial trouble. And because they don’t trust Washington to be fair or wise in cutting or rejiggering essential programs.

Tucker Carlson interviewing House Speaker Paul Ryan

Tucker Carlson interviewing House Speaker Paul Ryan

But the Hill figure did not believe that 2016 marked a change in political direction, and I suppose that’s lucky for him, because if he followed the prompting of a Trumpian base, his donors would not like it.

Surely it is reasonable to conclude a big, burgeoning hunk of voters came forward in 2016 with a new definition of what popular, centrist GOP policies would look like—more economically nationalist and more socially and economically populist.

The GOP’s first big legislative endeavor, the repeal of ObamaCare, has been understood as a classic fight between party leadership and the more conservative and libertarian wings, and there’s truth in that. I wonder if it will not also become a struggle between the leadership and the Trumpian core.

The new bill lacks an air of appropriate crisis, a sense that it is responsive to this moment. I criticize it not from the right but I suppose the left: Eight years ago, I argued ObamaCare would be an unmitigated mess: “The system will be overwhelmed, the government won’t be able to execute, the costs will be huge.” I urged Mr. Obama to focus instead on Medicare; attack waste, fraud and abuse; come up with far-sighted cost saving measures—and, once this was accomplished with bipartisan support, make one little change: open the program to the uninsured under 65. Expensive? Yes. But simpler, cleaner, and better than destroying the health insurance system. The 2008 crash had occurred less than a year before. That was the moment American insecurity began to surge and reasonable pessimism take hold.

Is it so different now?

The two great sociocultural documents of this moment are by the political economist Nicholas Eberstadt and the journalist Christopher Caldwell .

Mr. Eberstadt, in a Commentary piece titled “Our Miserable 21st Century,” writes that the year 2000 marked a grim milestone: “The Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around then—and broke down very badly.” He traces the economic factors, including dismal labor-force trends: “The plain fact is that 21st-century America has witnessed a dreadful collapse of work.” The top is doing fine but not the bottom: “21st-century America has somehow managed to produce markedly more wealth for its wealth-holders even as it provided markedly less work for its workers.”

Physical health has deteriorated for a significant swath of white America, “thanks in large part to drug and alcohol abuse. All this sounds a little too close for comfort to the story of modern Russia, with its devastating vodka- and drug-binging health setbacks. Yes: It can happen here, and it has. Welcome to our new America.”

He quotes a 2016 study reporting that nearly half of all prime-working-age male labor-force dropouts—some seven million men—take pain medication daily. That “adds a poignant and immensely sad detail to this portrait of daily life in 21st-century America: In our mind’s eye we can now picture many millions of un-working men in the prime of life, out of work and not looking for jobs, sitting in front of screens—stoned.”

Mr. Caldwell, in First Things, focuses on the narcotics epidemic: “The scale of the present wave of heroin and opioid abuse is unprecedented. Fifty-two thousand Americans died of overdoses in 2015—about four times as many as died from gun homicides and half again as many as died in car accidents.” Salisbury, Mass., population 8,000, lost one resident in the Vietnam War. “It has lost fifteen to heroin in the last two years.” In four hours last summer 28 people in Huntington, W.Va., population 49,000, overdosed.

The death toll “far eclipses” that of every previous drug crisis. Mr. Trump’s willingness at least to speak of the crisis surely helped him win, Mr. Caldwell observes: “In his inaugural address, President Trump referred to the drug epidemic (among other problems) as ‘carnage.’ Those who call the word an irresponsible exaggeration are wrong.”

These two great pieces in great magazines deserve the deep, focused and alarmed attention of policy makers. We are in the midst of the kind of crises that can do nations in. It is pleasant to chirp, as Speaker Paul Ryan does, of “choice” and “competition” and an end to “paternalistic” thinking on health care. Is it responsive to the moment? Or does it sound like old lyrics from an old hymnal?

I close with Tucker Carlson’s Wednesday night Fox News interview with Mr. Ryan. It cut to the political heart of the matter.

Mr. Carlson questioned the new bill’s elimination of a tax on wealthy investors. “Looking at the last election, was the message of that election really, ‘We need to help investors?’ I mean, the Dow is over 20,000. Are they really the group that needs the help?”

Mr. Ryan answered that the tax had been imposed by ObamaCare. “The trillion-dollar tax cut that this bill represents—that is part of the trillion-dollar tax increase that was in ObamaCare to finance ObamaCare.” It deserves repeal: “It’s bad for economic growth.”

Mr. Carlson: “But the overview here is that all the wealth, basically, in the last 10 years, has stuck to the top end. That’s one of the reasons we’ve had all the political turmoil, as you know. And so, kind of a hard sell to say ‘Yeah, we’re gonna repeal ObamaCare, but we’re gonna send more money to the people who’ve already gotten the richest over the last 10 years.’ I mean, that’s what this does, no? I’m not a leftist, it’s just—that’s true.”

“I’m not that concerned about it,” Mr. Ryan replied. Republicans promised to repeal ObamaCare, and they are.

Maybe he should be concerned.

A Surprising Show of Confidence Trump’s speech was clear, plain, even warm at times. Could we be seeing a capacity to grow?

The president’s speech has been broadly, justly praised. Here, a look at particular aspects of the joint session address, and why it had power.

First, the baseline accomplishment. Much has been said in the press about the sin of normalizing Donald Trump, but with this speech—by being there at the podium in the august House chamber, and operating capably and within established traditions and boundaries—he normalized himself. He doesn’t need the favor anymore.

People watching would have had a better opinion of him by the end of the speech than when they began. And those who abhor Mr. Trump got a glimpse, for once, of what his supporters saw and see in him.

Donald J. TrumpOn CNN Van Jones said—acutely, bravely, yet I think incorrectly—that Mr. Trump became president during the speech. I think instead Mr. Trump was finally understood to be president during the speech—by everyone, even those who oppose him and call him illegitimate. That, for such a unique character, was achievement enough.

Second, it was a good speech. It was clear and plain and at points had a surprising sweetness. He stuck to his usual policy sternness and yet added rhetorical warmth. There was a lot of braggadocio—“A new national pride is sweeping across our nation”—but there was also something more important. To get to it I mention something that is misunderstood about Ronald Reagan.

The cliché is that Reagan’s power was his optimism—he walked into the room with the sun’s rays dancing on his shoulders, and that made everything better. That’s not true. Reagan wasn’t precisely an optimist. He didn’t assume history unspooled each day in the direction of improvement; he didn’t necessarily think the best thing would happen. What was true was that Reagan was confident—in his own powers and those of the American people. He was confident we could make the right decisions and turn things around. People saw that confidence, and it allowed them to feel optimistic.

Confidence, in a president, is important. Mr. Trump’s speech was confident. He rose politically by painting an America in bleak decline, but here he insisted our problems are not irreversible. “Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved. . . . The challenges we face as a nation are great. But our people are even greater.”

It showed something like faith, and was powerful. This is one of the things people need, the sense that if we hold together and back the right plans we can get the arrows on the graph going upward again.

There was a heartening plainness. Mr. Trump told a story of meeting with officials and workers from Harley-Davidson. “They proudly displayed five of their magnificent motorcycles, made in the USA, on the front lawn of the White House.” He asked them how they were doing. “They told me—without even complaining, because they have been so mistreated for so long that they’ve become used to it—that it’s very hard to do business with other countries, because they tax our goods at such a high rate.” One country, they said, taxed their motorcycles at 100%. “They weren’t even asking for a change. But I am. . . . I am not going to let America and its great companies and workers be taken advantage of any longer.”

Mr. Trump recast his second, forthcoming executive order on immigration as motivated by prudence and a desire to protect: “It is not compassionate but reckless to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur.” He spoke of “our friends and allies in the Muslim world.” If he’d spoken this way early on, the first order would not have caused the uproar it did.

On ObamaCare’s repeal and replacement, the key phrase was “stable transition.” That appears to mean: If you now have coverage and previously lacked it, or if you’ve been forced onto a new plan and fear losing it, we’re going to spend the money it takes to protect you.

This will not be unpopular. The American people have watched for a generation as their federal government half-ruined the American health-care system. They won’t find it unjust that the government gives the victims of its efforts a break.

It was good that the president began the speech damning bigotry of all kinds: “We are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms.” This is not a hard thing to do rhetorically, yet is always important and necessary, because it reminds everyone in this fractious, bubbling, stressed and many-cultured country that we owe each other respect and regard, not only tolerance but affection. We won’t continue as a people unless we get this right.

The president has taken to doing this lately. Why did he resist so long? Maybe in part because a man who believes himself unbiased will find it grating that others insist he personally, publicly, repeatedly oppose the ugly isms. Maybe he feels he has nothing to prove and suspects bowing to the demand is tantamount to conceding that he does. But Mr. Trump did have things to prove, because of the views of a highly vocal sliver of his supporters. In any case, presidents should say the right things.

There is something the leaders of populist, nationalist movements here and in Europe do not understand. They are not powerful, because they are perceived, on some level, by some people, to be racist or narrow or anti-Semitic. They fail to win power—they have low electoral ceilings, or fail to win half the votes—because of this perception. It doesn’t help them, it kills them. Because the majority of people don’t like the smell of sulfur.

Nationalists should actively and publicly reject and rebuke the forces of darkness. “We need them to win”? No, they’re the reason you lose. They’re not numerous, they’re only loud. Draw a line between them and you, raise your ceiling, get yourself a chance at winning. Which, if you are serious about your programs, vision and philosophy, is the point.

Mr. Trump took a lot of steam out of the Democrats. By the time he movingly lauded the beautiful young widow of a Navy SEAL, the faces of the Democrats on the floor had turned glum and grim. They were sinking in their seats. Politicians know when a politician has scored.

Republicans, on the other hand, were buoyed. As they came to understand the speech was not a disaster but a triumph, they got more enthusiastic and happy-looking. As desperate as they are not to do anything, because to decide is to divide, they are also desperate to do something. Maybe they can with Chief Crazy Horse. All the polls will show a bump for the president. They’ll see it as a bump for the party.

It marks, if not a new chapter, a turning of the page. It suggests Mr. Trump may have a capacity to grow into the office, which is so surprising to me as a thought that I hardly want to commit it to paper. But here it is, in the paper.

Washington Still Reels From the Quake of 2016 From the White House’s empty offices to overly giddy CPAC, everyone seems a little lost.

Washington

If Democrats have a brain in their head, they’ll let Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch sail through the Senate. He’s too attractive. He has been frank and respectful in his meetings with them. He’s been candid about the man who nominated him, Donald Trump, to the reported irritation of the president. He is a thinker of clear conservative leanings who cannot be painted as radical because he’s radical as warm milk. His decisions tend to be plain, direct yet highly literate; in one he diagramed a sentence. He’s a friendly persuader with a serious intellectual background (Marshall Scholar at Oxford) and personal dignity.

Sharp and uniform opposition to him would look radical.

Democrats should make critical or reserved speeches at the confirmation hearings next month and then softly vote yes. They should make a show of their desire to be fair, impartial, Constitution-minded. Then they should try to kill the next nomination as a bridge too far, while hiding behind the good faith they showed in accepting Judge Gorsuch.

Do Senate Democrats have a brain in their heads? They do.

It’s good to be Judge Gorsuch. It’s going to be bad to be the man or woman who follows him.

*   *   *

DC EarthquakeEveryone in journalism has tried to sum up the first month of Donald Trump. The problem for all of us is that the act of defining tends to impose form on what is by nature formless. New administrations always are. This one is different only in the difficulty of getting its nominees through, and getting others to join them. Two weeks ago, walking around the Old Executive Office Building, all I could think was how empty and quiet the place seemed. My old office was shut with a big weird lock. The office across the hall had the door open and was brightly lit but was also apparently unoccupied. My impression after an afternoon in the White House complex: The lights are on but nobody’s home.

It can be said of many if not most in Washington that they still have a concussed look. They’re like people after an earthquake. At some point you go out looking for water and provisions and you wind up getting lost because the ground around you has been torn up and old markers flattened.

Among the lost: the American Conservative Union, whose annual Conservative Political Action Conference used to be too sober and now is too giddy.

Hapless congressmen and senators being yelled at in town halls.

And Speaker Paul Ryan, who Wednesday rode a horse along the Rio Grande. He meant to show skeptical conservatives he means it about border security, but he looked like someone on his way to club the serfs.

CPAC, in its famous Milo invitation, was trying to be inclusive and trying to be cool. Inclusive is good, especially toward those who’ve been told, or concluded on their own, that they’re not all that welcome. But you can’t include those who speak sweetly of child sexual abuse. You don’t want them in your tent. As for trying to be cool, conservatives are not cool, that’s what’s cool about them. It’s their job to be serious, thoughtful, mature in their judgment—mature, period. It was excellent, however, on Thursday to see Dan Schneider, the ACU’s executive director, do what the president should have done long ago and go after the so-called alt-right, scoring them as racist, anti-Semitic whack-jobs: “This group,” he said, “they are not us. The alt-right ain’t right at all.”

Well done, mature grown-up. That was cool.

*   *   *

An odd thing about the president—and this has contributed to the general lostness of Washington—is that he doesn’t perform a primary and obvious function of presidents, which is to argue for things. You make a decision, unveil a program, and make a case for its excellence. The other side then argues back. In the ensuing back-and-forth, voters get the contours of what’s being proposed.

This president doesn’t argue, he only announces. He asserts. Previous presidents in their early speeches were always making the case for a certain advancement. Not to do so is a waste of the biggest mic in the world.

The populists or economic nationalists of the Trump administration have, on some level and at the moment, swept the party. Now they’re trying to own it. But you don’t hear from them much about the meaning and content of their endeavor. And the symbolism that keeps cropping up around the White House, or rather Mar-a-Lago, is odd. In Palm Beach, Fla., cabinet members and top administration officials swept into the birthday party of Steve Schwarzman, chairman of the president’s Strategic and Policy Forum. It was black tie, lavish, with trapeze artists and “a massive fireworks display on the Intracoastal Waterway,” as Town & Country reported. Mr. Schwarzman has been admired in this space for his great generosity to Catholic education. And it’s his money, as they say. But it is odd to see such un-self-conscious excess when you’re thinking Populist New Wave.

Early word on the president’s budgetary framework is also startling, and adds to the confusion. He’ll cut waste, he says. Good. Beyond that, his plans sound pretty standard Republican. But Mr. Trump didn’t campaign as a standard Republican. He didn’t stress slashing funding or forcing down the debt. It is legitimate to wonder if Republicans in Congress are trying to tug the White House more toward what used to be called green-eyeshade Republicanism—“we’re just a bunch of accountants and bean-counters”—and away from more Trumpian campaign vows such as infrastructure spending.

This week Mike Allen, in his morning Axios newsletter, reported Capitol Hill is currently overstuffed with legislation, and GOP strategists say there’s a new plan to roll out a big program to rebuild roads and airports. They’ll push it off until next year. The thinking is that Democrats are likelier to back such a costly scheme closer to the midterm elections.

That struck me as exactly wrong. The first year’s legislative agenda defines a new administration. Early programs stand out before everything, in the following three years, becomes a blur. Infrastructure is part of why Donald Trump was hired—he’s the builder, the magnate. It was for his supporters not a secondary but a primary issue—build something, do something. The unions and trade organizations back it, as would Americans who are nervous now whenever they go through a tunnel. Big endeavors can be promising in ways that aren’t always calculable. You can add a mentoring program to get teenagers, especially boys, off their couches and into the world of workers, especially men, who know how to do something and can teach it. That would be valuable to our culture.

The Democrats will have a hard time opposing such a bill in 2018? They’ll have a hard time opposing it now. And constituents aren’t stupid. They’ll remember in ’18 what a congressman didn’t do in ’17.

Anyway, one wonders if the White House is getting snookered by longtime Hill urchins, or snookering itself.

Twenty-sixteen was an earthquake. The ground beneath Washington’s feet shifted. People here need to get over their shock and start recognizing the new lay of the land.

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