Op-Ed by Harold Hutchison
While the litigation in more than a half-dozen contested states is continuing, there is still time to look over some of the lessons that can be taken from the 2020 election. No matter the outcome of the litigation, there are things that can be learned from the campaign and can be applied to future races.
How did President Donald Trump manage to add millions of votes to his total but find himself in the middle of the most disputed election since 1876? While it is tempting to place all of the blame on fraud and failures to follow election law, that is not the case, and it ignores the full picture. One of the reasons this election is being disputed on the currently unfavorable terms of Biden leads in multiple key states is because some of President Trump’s personnel choices were not ideal, and they came back to bite him.
Becoming president comes with a lot of power and perks, but it also comes with responsibilities. One of those is hiring people. Every four years, one of two committees with the United States Congress publishes what is known as the Plum Book. According to the U.S. General Services Administration, this book lists the positions that are “subject to noncompetitive appointment.” Or, to put it more bluntly, these are the positions a president needs to fill (or get people he trusts to fill) upon taking office in order to advance the agenda that he/she campaigned on. The 2016 edition was 236 pages of small print in a PDF document.
The fact is, President Trump crippled his 2020 presidential campaign with his difficulty finding and keeping good people in the White House and the Cabinet, and the personnel issues extended to his re-election campaign as well. It's not just about the cabinet secretaries and the positions that generate headlines and live coverage of the nomination. There are other positions that you never hear about, and having the wrong person there can be a problem. A number of these appointments do not require Senate confirmation, either.
For every home run in his hiring like Betsy DeVos, there was chaos and turnover in agencies like Defense and Homeland Security—where they can be least afforded. There were White House staffers, campaign staffers, and Cabinet officials who were caught up in scandal. But scandals happen to every administration, and there are bad hires, too.
Part of it was the fact that Trump had been an anti-establishment candidate. There was a price for that: Trump could not rapidly fill all those positions in the Plum Book when he took office, never really got everyone appointed. But that was not a guarantee of chaos in and of itself. After all, Ronald Reagan came in as anti-establishment in the wake of the 1980 election, and he didn’t have tons of chaos.
The reason Trump did not fare as well as Reagan was because of a bigger problem of Trump’s own making: Seemingly little thought was given to the key positions underneath the actual Cabinet secretaries. While it makes a lot of sense to allow a nominee for a position like Secretary of State, Attorney General, or Secretary of Defense to pick their team, there needs to be an effort to vet those nominees as to how on board they are with the agenda of an incoming president.
This was a problem because it gave plenty of openings for career bureaucrats to obstruct the agenda and also gave them outsized influence without the appointed people to provide oversight to ensure that the agenda of the president is being carried out. See the revelation that a career diplomat lied to President Trump about troop deployments in Syria and getting away with it.
The latter encapsulates Trump’s biggest failing in a nutshell. He was wide open to sabotage from bureaucrats by not having a full policy team at Defense and State. In this case, it kept him from fulfilling a key campaign promise.
As it was, President Trump ended up relying heavily on Jared Kushner for a lot of key policy initiatives—and while Kushner racked up successes, including multiple peace deals in the Middle East, it meant he couldn’t work on the re-election effort. And it is clear from what went on that he was desperately needed there.
In the re-election campaign, Brad Parscale, an effective data guru in 2016, was a disaster. How much of his inadequacy was due to health issues is unknown, and certainly, his recovery should be hoped for, but his failures set the campaign back horribly. Again, there was a decided lack of bench strength: Kellyanne Conway’s family drama (to put it mildly) had taken her out of the campaign.
The constant chaos did not help when it came to implementing policy or making a case for another four years. If anything, people who liked the policies but got tired of the drama and chaos likely ended up splitting their tickets, voting Biden or third-party, while voting Republicans down-ballot.
What should future candidates for the presidency learn from this? The key points are very simple:
- Hire competent personnel for the campaign. They also need to be loyal and should sign non-disclosure/non-disparagement agreements as a condition of being hired. (We should not forget the way Nicolle Wallace back-stabbed Sarah Palin.)
- As the campaign goes on, start having personnel in mind. At the very least, identify the key positions that would need to be staffed in the White House and various government agencies. Those who are selected need to be on board with the agenda, able and willing to serve and have the department's expertise.
- Have a bench. Health and family issues can crop up (Parscale/Conway). There may be a serious policy disagreement (James Mattis). There could be scandals that take someone out (Flynn/Price/Zinke). Having people able to step up and take over will be crucial.
- Don’t just focus on the Cabinet secretaries—their team matters, too. How much damage did Miles Taylor do as “Anonymous?” Once the cabinet picks have been identified, work with them to pick a team, especially in the agencies crucial to the mission.
Make no mistake, President Trump accomplished a great deal in four years with the deck stacked against him. That is something patriots should take pride in. But what he could have accomplished with better personnel decisions in those four years, with the bonus of a decisively-won second term is something that should be recognized as a huge missed opportunity.
Harold Hutchison has nearly two decades of experience covering a variety of topics, including politics, national security affairs, foreign policy, Second Amendment issues, and sports. He has been published in numerous media outlets, including National Review, the Daily Caller, the Patriot Post, Ammoland.com, and the Washington Examiner.