President-elect Donald Trump has now announced almost all of his choices for Cabinet positions. By any definition, many of his choices are much more aggressive than those of his predecessors. There are few “safe” or “compromise” picks among the appointees. Many, if not most, of Trump’s cabinet choices would be expected to draw fire and risk rejection if they had been proposed by the last several Presidents. His Energy Secretary has proposed eliminating the Department of Energy. His EPA Administrator has sued the Agency and vowed to dismantle it. Of course, his choice of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State has been controversial because of Tillerson’s lack of government and diplomatic experience and his supposedly close ties with Vladimir Putin. Even Trump’s relatively uncontroversial choice for Defense Secretary, James Mattis, requires a Congressional waiver.
In the past, presidents have tended to avoid controversial picks that would require a bruising confirmation battle. Because of this, showdowns between the President and the Senate over Cabinet appointments have generally been rare. In 227 years, the Senate has approved over 500 Cabinet nominations and rejected just 9. (In another 12 instances, nominations were withdrawn without a vote.) The last appointment rejected by the Senate was President George H.W. Bush’s nomination for Defense Secretary, John Tower, in 1989. Following the six Presidential elections since then, only a few nominations have been withdrawn. According to the Senate’s website, President Clinton withdrew three nominations (only one of his initial nominees). President George W. Bush withdrew two (only one of his initial nominees). Lastly, President Obama withdrew one (an initial nominee). Against that backdrop, many of Trump’s choices would face fights in the Senate and risk rejection.
Although this strategy of nominating many controversial and confrontational picks is certainly unconventional, it is also likely to work in Trump’s favor. Based on the initial Democratic response, he may succeed in getting many picks confirmed that would have been rejected or withdrawn if chosen by Presidents using a “normal” cabinet strategy over the last thirty years.
The initial response from Democrats has generally been that, as the opposition party, they have to pick their spots. The focus, so far, looks like it may be on Secretary of State-nominee Rex Tillerson. Even if the Democrats follow through, target Tillerson, and, after a bruising and partisan battle, prevent his appointment, how could you say the Democrats won and Trump lost? To opponents following this strategy, many of Trump’s appointments are equally objectionable, yet they’ll make it through without a fight. Had Trump chosen a centrist Cabinet, a Pudzer or Pruitt might not make it out of committee much less get confirmed. But with Trump’s aggressive choices, Democrats may choose to avoid an all-fronts war. Tillerson or another of his picks might get sacrificed, but in exchange the new administration will get a far-right cabinet across the board.
The only alternative for the Democrats would be to oppose every pick that they find objectionable. But that carries great risk. Trump’s PR instincts, despite being frequently questioned, have almost always worked. He would have a lot of ammunition to play the victim: inside/election-losing/obstructionists taking an unprecedented stand against the new President before he even gets to start governing, against appointments that are, frankly, exactly the kind of appointments you would expect Trump to make. Trump’s strategy has put Senate Democrats in an incredibly tough spot—focus efforts on one pick and let a bunch of other objectionable picks through without a fight, or take the “shutdown the government” approach and risk overextension of political capital and bad PR for a party that just suffered a bruising loss.
This is an especially big problem because the Democrats don’t have a majority in the Senate. Their options are using procedural technicalities to block nominees or pull in some Republicans. Getting a few Republicans on their side is much harder in an all-out fight. Trump had difficulty with the Republican establishment throughout his campaign, but he won and has majorities in the House and the Senate. A Republican might be swayed to oppose a particular candidate but is unlikely to side with the Democrats on more than that. The PR risk of being seen as oppositional to an incoming president with an enthusiastic base is likely too great. The ties the Democrats hands to focus on likely just one pick to try to get a few Republicans to cross the aisle.
This scenario has played out in high-stakes and big-tournament poker. Trump-style aggression frequently succeeds, especially against the seemingly prudent strategy of “picking your spots.” Players sometimes come along at high levels and use that strategy of amped-up aggression, always betting, always raising, moving all their chips in no-limit games. Those types of hyper-aggressive players are the hardest to play against because they are saying, by their actions, “if you want to stop me, you’re going to have to put all your chips at risk.” While opponents wait for that one time that their hand is strong enough to risk all their money, the aggressive player accumulates a nearly insurmountable mountain of chips without a fight.
The problem is that counteracting the strategy requires calling much more often, almost across the board, to signal that the other player can’t continue to be so aggressive in the future. That requires taking a lot of short-term pain, risking all your chips to obstruct the aggressive player. In an across-the-board fight, you might put all your chips at risk with some hands that aren’t that good. Most players don’t have the capital to burn up on that strategy so aren’t willing to take the short-term for the long-term gain. It is why aggressive players can get away with it for a very long time.
The question for Senate Democrats is whether they will play it safe and marshal their efforts on the most objectionable appointment, or whether they will answer Trump’s aggression with more aggression. Especially because they don’t have a Senate majority, they risk getting the blame for ratcheting up the conflict and obstructing the new Administration. It will be fascinating to watch how they will respond to someone who’s putting them in such a bad strategic spot.