President-elect Donald Trump is assembling what looks to be the most conservative presidential Cabinet in memory. And all of a sudden, after much hand-wringing fear that Trump would completely remake the Republican Party in his own populist nationalist image, conservatives now face a threat that the fates often inflict as a punishment: getting almost everything they want.
Strangely, Trump has been freed to pursue such a conservative Cabinet because of his other scandals. Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio may have felt constricted by the media's Eye of Sauron focusing intently on their Cabinet choices. But with the media devoting so much attention to stories about Russian hacking, or the anticipation of Trump's personal financial corruption, or whatever the president-elect just tweeted, Trump has mostly gotten a pass on assembling a truly hard-right Cabinet.
Trump wants the oil-friendly Texan Rick Perry at the Department of Energy. The Wall Street Journal's editorial board anticipates the former governor winding down the DoE's investment portfolio — you know, the one that bought into Solyndra and other green failures. At the Department of Education, Trump picked the champion of charter schools Betsy Devos. National Review exalted, "A better choice would be hard to find."
The brainy right-wing Tom Price will lead the Department of Health and Human Services. The Georgia congressman's wished-for reforms of ObamaCare include replacing it with tax credits indexed to age and health-savings accounts, along with some malpractice reform to try to tamp down costs. "For eight years, we've been told by President Obama that the only viable way to expand coverage to the uninsured was through ObamaCare," wrote health-care analyst Avik Roy. "Republicans now have the opportunity to prove him wrong."
The Senate's most hard-right immigration restrictionist, Jeff Sessions, is set to be attorney general. The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes buzzed with delight in anticipation of Oklahoma's Attorney General Scott Pruitt heading to the Environmental Protection Agency. And on and on and on.
Many conservatives who were skeptical of Trump's pro-government and nationalist rhetoric have been surprised by the budget-slashing, authority-curtailing, market-loving reformers that Trump is selecting. The conservative writer S.E. Cupp declared this proposed Cabinet a "dream team."
Who will set the limits on the amount or the depth of conservative reform? It's not clear. House Speaker Paul Ryan seems to be preparing an ambitious agenda for unified Republican government. Indeed, conservatives seem on the verge of getting more than they ever dreamed of.
But there are serious political dangers that come from pressing too hard.
First, health care reform. Although ObamaCare suffers in popular opinion with every year of rate hikes, one of the law's chief political liabilities was the amount of disruption it brought to arrangements that many families had invested in. (Hence why Obama was so anxious to assure people they "could keep" any plan they like.) Straight-up repeal could anger at least 20 million Americans who get their health insurance, or at least get it subsidized, through the exchanges. Replacing it with wonky little tax credits could shift annoying levels of planning and paperwork back onto customers who shop on the private market. And almost immediately, if cost-cutting means reducing the number of health services offered, there will be genuine sob stories about what medical treatments have been denied to people.
There are dangers on taxes, too. Although a reduction of the U.S. corporate tax rate has great consensus among economists, it also offers a free stick to Democrats to use against the Republicans who will be seen as reducing taxes for "the rich." And of course, Republicans may reduce income and investment taxes that really do disproportionately fall on the rich.
Then there are dangers that come with picking Cabinet officers, like Ben Carson, who have a deep sense for their own principles, but a very shallow understanding of the public mood.
There are opportunities too, of course. Betsy DeVos could work to enforce the provisions of the Obama-approved "Every Student Succeeds Act" and pick fights with public teachers unions, who have lately seen their support among upwardly mobile liberals and some minority communities dissipate in any fight of substance.
But overall, conservatives should worry about too much of what they consider a good thing. Bill Clinton ran as a moderate Democrat and won in 1992. Even though he signed onto a number of popular centrist reforms, his administration fell into surprisingly high-pitched cultural battles over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," or his surgeon general's interest in distributing contraception at schools. The subsequent 1994 elections inaugurated what has become a consistent Republican advantage in the House. That election represented a stunning rebuke and forced Clinton's administration to move further right to get anything done at all.
This ought to be a cautionary tale for conservatives.
Those on the right who are crowing about the unexpected gifts of the Trump presidency should be careful what they wish for. The government may be united, but the nation has a way of quickly reminding Washington how divided we really are.