Moving beyond a simplistic theory of political merit
Depending on whom you ask, Donald Trump has either enjoyed a dizzyingly efficient first year as president, skillfully implementing the Make America Great Again agenda he was swept into office to bring about, or a frighteningly disastrous first 12 months in which the country’s utter destruction was prevented by constitutional constraints blessedly put in place by our founders.
I trust it’s obvious neither judgment should be taken very seriously. But not because the truth is somewhere “in the middle.” The problem, rather, is that the framework is broken. The way we judge presidents is seriously deficient.
To properly assess presidential performance, we need to make a distinction between two types of political achievement: those the president meaningfully helped to bring about, and those he did not. Popular appraisals of presidential power exaggerate the office’s causal role within the machinery of government. The fact of the matter is no White House can plausibly lay claim to playing a crucial role in all that is good in society — though that doesn’t stop every administration from trying.
But that distinction is not enough. Certainly it’s important to differentiate between instances in which the president’s words and actions proved to be causally effectual and instances in which they were causally incidental, but that’s just for starters. There is a deeper consideration that we need to take into account, a consideration that makes all the difference in the world.
It’s an insight with a parallel from the world of sports analytics.
One of the most interesting statistical categories — usually associated with baseball analytics, but increasingly used in basketball and other sports — is wins above replacement, or WAR. A player’s WAR score is supposed to reflect how many additional wins his team achieved over the amount of wins the team would have achieved with a replacement-level player instead. Though the notion of “replacement-level” is contentious — for example, does it mean a player obtainable at minimal cost? does it mean a “league-average” player? — the idea is fairly straightforward: it’s a statistic intended to convey a good player’s marginal value as it relates to his team’s win total.
This past season, Jose Altuve’s 8.32 WAR led the MLB, and Russell Westbrook’s 12.42 VORP (value over replacement player) led the NBA. According to this statistic, had the Houston Astros fielded a replacement-level player in place of Altuve, they would have achieved 8 fewer wins, and had the Oklahoma City Thunder used a replacement-level player in place of Westbrook, they would have ended the season with a whopping 12 fewer wins. The Astros would have still made the postseason, though almost certainly would have failed to even sniff a World Series, while the Thunder would have missed the playoffs altogether.
What would we find if we analyzed Donald Trump’s performance along these lines?
Obviously, there is something amiss about treating politics like sports. I’m not advocating we begin assessing politicians based on statistical categories imported from the sports analytics world. But this insight in particular — wins above replacement — is one that should factor into our assessments of presidential performance.
The reason is simple: it only makes sense to praise a president for an outcome — say, a judicial confirmation — if that outcome had been less likely under a replacement president from the same party. If anyone else from the prior election’s field would have managed the same, then what is the basis of the praise? The outcome wouldn’t have been any different.
From a conservative perspective, the two biggest wins this year have been the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch and the passage of tax reform.
According to an NBC exit poll, 70 percent of voters said Supreme Court appointments were either the most important or one of the most important factors in determining which candidate to support during the election. The appointment of Gorsuch, a Scalia-like originalist, to the Supreme Court bench represented Trump making good on one of the most consequential promises he made on the campaign trail. Then, coming off the heels of, and amplified by, the GOP’s failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, the passage of tax reform earlier this month notched a massive win in Trump’s column to finish the year on a high note.
It would shock me if Trump knew the difference between Antonin Scalia’s and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s judicial philosophies, and I think my jaw would hit the floor if it turned out that Trump could articulate the economic theory behind his four tax principles. But here’s the thing: none of that matters when it comes to evaluating his performance. A president doesn’t get extra points if he, rather than an adviser he appointed, is ultimately responsible for the substance of a policy initiative. It’s the president who must sign a bill into a law. That’s why I focus instead on a different metric: wins above replacement.
The underlying rationale for using this standard is quite intuitive. Any president is bound to have policy wins; to cite presidential achievements without situating them in a comparative context is to abandon the task of analysis. The most important question a person of the president’s party could ask is: Would any of the others have done better?
In the interests of having a concrete example in mind as opposed to an abstract notion of a “replacement-level Republican candidate,” let’s consider a few. Here are the candidates from the last election who could have plausibly beat Hillary, in order of likelihood: Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Ted Cruz.
Would the confirmation of Gorsuch have been less likely under Rubio, or Kasich, or Bush, or Cruz? Obviously the question doesn’t center on Gorsuch in particular; there is no meaningful difference between a three pointer from the top of the perimeter versus a three pointer from the side. The question isn’t whether Cruz would have definitively chosen Gorsuch but whether he would have chosen someone just as good, from a conservative perspective.
I think there are serious grounds for doubting that any of Rubio, Kasich, and Bush would have appointed a justice as satisfying to the conservative base as Trump managed with Gorsuch. Yet out of the three, only Kasich would have represented a real worry. The others would have chosen someone approximating Gorsuch’s conservative credentials. I rate this a half win (.5) above replacement.
What about tax reform? It’s hard to make the case that any of the replacement presidents would have made tax reform less likely to pass. The group tasked with negotiating what to build into the tax bill, the so-called Big 6, notably included a couple Trump appointees: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn. Mnuchin and Cohn represent the Trump administration’s interests, certainly, yet it’s unlikely any of the replacement presidents would have appointed negotiators less capable than Mnuchin and Cohn. The replacements would have been just as likely to secure tax reform. Thus, no points here.
What about the other accomplishments Trump supporters cite as evidence that he had a good first year?
Let’s consider the advance against ISIS. The New York Times’ Ross Douthat — not a Trump supporter — called it “a war Trump won.” The others, especially Rubio, would have taken on the Islamic State just as aggressively — probably more so. But it’s also possible a more hawkish approach would’ve failed to generate the same gains Trump has managed in an extraordinarily difficult region of the world. Trump gets half a point.
What about the reshaping of federal courts along conservative lines? To the degree that we can map ideology onto jurisprudence, Trump has appointed a large number of conservative-friendly jurists to the federal courts. While it’s obvious Trump has outsourced this agenda to groups tasked with making conservatives happy, I must reiterate that, from a conservative perspective, this isn’t a mark against him. No conservatives hold that he has delegated this task to outside groups against him; in fact, they welcome it, as Trump’s involvement would almost certainly result in nominees closer to his political leanings. His judicial ignorance, of course, has its drawbacks: on some occasions the process could use greater oversight and supervision. Yet in the end the replacement presidents would have done just as well. No points.
Deregulation? Here’s an area in which it is probably right to say Trump has rolled back Obama-era rules in particular, and regulation in general, with greater tenacity than any of his replacements would have, other than of course Ted Cruz. The business class would have insisted on a program as far-reaching as Trump’s from any of the other four, but it’s unclear whether they would have scaled back as much as Trump has. The President gets one point.
Things get a bit skewed when it comes to Trump-specific initiatives. Obviously, moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem has been celebrated by many conservatives, though it’s unclear to what extent conservatives would have approved any of the others making the same move. Same goes for funding the wall, the travel ban, the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and other Trumpian prerogatives.
Certainly, from the perspective of nationalists, populists, and other Trump-specific constituencies, Trump would receive a high WAR value since none of the other replacements would pursue objectives along these lines. But when it comes to policy initiatives we might plausibly characterize as standard conservative objectives, Trump’s WAR is actually in the negatives.
How so? The two total points I gave him have to be balanced against the many “wins” his replacements would have undoubtedly secured in other respects. This makes sense: From a standard conservative standpoint, a Rubio presidency would have resulted in significantly fewer political missteps, and likely modestly more victories. Same goes for the others. Trump has historically low approval numbers for a reason.
Is Trump responsible for the political achievements his supporters attribute to him? In many ways, yes. But as I’ve shown in this post, that’s not the whole story. We need to distinguish between achievements only Trump could have secured and achievements replacement-level Republican presidents would have been just as likely to secure.
Some Republicans are giving Trump lots of credit, and when compared to the prospect of a Hillary presidency, doing so makes sense. But that’s not the only comparison we can make. It also makes sense, when doling out credit, to ask whether a president would have been better than others who might have been voted into office instead.
If these replacement-level presidents would have done just as well, or even better, then what is the rationale for praising the one we got?
Does Trump Deserve Credit For His Year One Achievements? was originally published in Arc Digital on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.