Every year I write a column about where I was wrong in the previous year. This year I have less fodder, because my colossal errors in 2016 — underestimating President Trump, mostly — gave me a small dose of humility.
So, this year I will look at how I judged Trump. In an important way, I underestimated him, and this misestimation was a big part of the reason I refused to vote for him.
As a Maryland voter, my decision was easy. There was zero doubt that Hillary Clinton would win my state, and so I was never tempted to play the lesser-of-two-evils game at the ballot box.
I saw Trump as a vulgar and dishonest man, unconcerned with checks and balances and unfit for office, and so I had no desire to vote for him. Voting in a deep-blue state I felt perfectly liberated to cast a protest vote.
While I considered writing in someone like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., I opted instead to write in former CIA officer Evan McMullin, who was a registered write-in, meaning votes for him would actually count — making it a more concrete conservative protest.
These days, I find myself regularly wishing I could make McMullin go away. Like almost every McMullin voter I know, I’m embarrassed by his post-election behavior. Most conservatives who voted for McMullin maintain a critical and skeptical stance towards Trump. McMullin, though, has joined the performative #Resistance, blasting as counterrevolutionaries anyone who doesn’t go far enough in castigating every action of the president, even the harmless and salutary ones.
So, there’s the first mistake 2017 has brought to my attention: I should have eschewed any cute, strategic protest voting, and instead, I should have just voted my conscience, to borrow a phrase.
Here’s what I don’t regret: Refusing to vote for Trump. I concluded that not only would I not vote for Trump in Maryland, but I wasn’t even certain I would vote for him if I lived in a swing state such as Virginia. The reason: I couldn’t decide who was the lesser of two evils.
This sounds insane to most of my friends and readers. Half of you may think, "Obviously, Trump is the worst president we could ever have." Half of you probably think, "Anybody is better than Hillary."
So, now, after nearly a year of President Trump, how do I assess my pre-Election Day judgment of him?
My biggest mistake was predicting that Trump wouldn’t appoint a restrained, conservative judge to the Supreme Court. I assumed that a judge who believed in constitutional limits on executive power and who wouldn’t swear loyalty to Trump — that is, a good judge — would aggravate Trump too much for him to actually nominate him. I was wrong. Trump gave us a superbly qualified, brilliant, conservative justice in Neil Gorsuch.
This is crucial. My most conservative friends who voted for Trump cited the courts as their reason. I argued that this stance didn’t hold water.
Also, Trump has placed dozens of excellent nominees on lower federal courts with only a few subpar nominees.
His demeanor, comportment, and rhetoric were all worse than I would have guessed. A better president could have ushered Obamacare repeal through Congress and probably could have shaped a better tax bill.
On foreign policy, Trump has surprised on the upside. That is, he has neither engaged in the adventurism his predecessors did and Clinton would have, nor has he launched or triggered a war with his impulsiveness and pique.
So, if he has generally outperformed my expectations, why don’t I reverse my 2016 judgment that he would end up being worse than Clinton?
For starters, look at Virginia. Republicans lost a very winnable governor race in Virginia because Democrats — elite suburbanites in the "Swamp," college students, and African Americans — turned out at record levels. Generic Democrats beat generic Republicans by double digits in most polls. Trump’s popularity started off low and is still falling.
That is, Trump is dragging the GOP brand into the gutter while getting Republicans to abandon the principles that undergird conservatism. If Clinton were president, Republicans would be eying a blowout election that could give the GOP 60 seats in the Senate. Instead, Democrats could take both chambers next year.
Then there’s the looming tail risk — Trump could still launch or trigger a nuclear war or cause some other catastrophe through his lack of continence and his disdain for the rule of law.
But with Gorsuch on the bench, it’s possible that Trump will prove himself obviously better than Clinton. And that’s not what I expected.