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Why Trump's cabinet picks are so galling to Democrats, and why he doesn't care

by Jake Novak
(United States)

When new presidents are elected, Presidents-elect usually pick their cabinets with two things in mind: Rewarding factions that backed them in the election, and broadening their support by choosing unifying figures. But President-elect Donald Trump doesn't seem to care about that. And he's clearly betting that in the end, you won't care either.


A funny thing about almost every modern presidential election aftermath is that the losing side often makes the loudest demands. It doesn't matter if the losers are Republicans or Democrats. With every cabinet pick announcement you can bet the losing side will cry bloody murder about it as if they had won and the new president owed them something.

I call it the "Cain Effect," as in the Biblical villain Cain, who after God convicts him of murdering his brother Abel, he immediately demands God's special protection. Imagine what Cain would have asked for had he done something good!

But in 2016, the Democrats might have a point in that Trump seems to be going out of his way to choose a number of cabinet members who raise liberal hackles as much as possible. He's tapped several appointees who are best known for their strong opposition to the agencies they're going to lead.

There's the choice of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, even as he's one of the Attorneys General suing the EPA for what they call excessive regulation.

There's Education Secretary pick Betsy DeVos, who has long opposed government control of public education as a fierce advocate for school choice.

Trump picked Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, a man who wants to trash a great deal of the Department of Justice's policies especially when it comes to immigration.

And the list goes on and on as similar Democrat and liberal anger has been stoked over the choice of public housing critic Dr. Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the tapping of labor union foe Andy Puzder to be Secretary of Labor.

Making it all worse for the Democrats is their ability to block these appointees is now almost nil. The Senate confirms cabinet-level choices and Republicans control the Senate with a 52-48 vote advantage this coming term, (53-48 when Vice President-elect Mike Pence's tie-breaking vote is accounted for).

Even worse, the Democrats themselves eliminated almost every significant minority party filibuster tool when former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid initiated the so-called "nuclear option" in 2013. Since that move, individual senators have only been able to seize the floor for marathon speeches opposing nominees. But once those speeches end, the majority can now confirm nominees without needing the once traditional minimum 60 votes. All of this is adding to a combination of liberal despair and vehement anger.

Donald Trump
Gretchen Ertl | Reuters
Donald Trump
When new presidents are elected, Presidents-elect usually pick their cabinets with two things in mind: Rewarding factions that backed them in the election, and broadening their support by choosing unifying figures. But President-elect Donald Trump doesn't seem to care about that. And he's clearly betting that in the end, you won't care either.

A funny thing about almost every modern presidential election aftermath is that the losing side often makes the loudest demands. It doesn't matter if the losers are Republicans or Democrats. With every cabinet pick announcement you can bet the losing side will cry bloody murder about it as if they had won and the new president owed them something.

I call it the "Cain Effect," as in the Biblical villain Cain, who after God convicts him of murdering his brother Abel, he immediately demands God's special protection. Imagine what Cain would have asked for had he done something good!

But in 2016, the Democrats might have a point in that Trump seems to be going out of his way to choose a number of cabinet members who raise liberal hackles as much as possible. He's tapped several appointees who are best known for their strong opposition to the agencies they're going to lead.

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There's the choice of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, even as he's one of the Attorneys General suing the EPA for what they call excessive regulation.

There's Education Secretary pick Betsy DeVos, who has long opposed government control of public education as a fierce advocate for school choice.

Trump picked Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, a man who wants to trash a great deal of the Department of Justice's policies especially when it comes to immigration.

And the list goes on and on as similar Democrat and liberal anger has been stoked over the choice of public housing critic Dr. Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the tapping of labor union foe Andy Puzder to be Secretary of Labor.

Making it all worse for the Democrats is their ability to block these appointees is now almost nil. The Senate confirms cabinet-level choices and Republicans control the Senate with a 52-48 vote advantage this coming term, (53-48 when Vice President-elect Mike Pence's tie-breaking vote is accounted for).

Even worse, the Democrats themselves eliminated almost every significant minority party filibuster tool when former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid initiated the so-called "nuclear option" in 2013. Since that move, individual senators have only been able to seize the floor for marathon speeches opposing nominees. But once those speeches end, the majority can now confirm nominees without needing the once traditional minimum 60 votes. All of this is adding to a combination of liberal despair and vehement anger.

"Trump is betting his cabinet picks will remove the regulations and taxes that stifle growth and jobs in the fastest, if not the most diplomatic, way to get them back."
Still, though the rule changes in the Senate mean he doesn't have to make more unifying cabinet choices, shouldn't Trump do so anyway to heal this divided nation? The answer lies in defining who is truly aggrieved, and who Trump thinks is really going to care in the long run. Based on his comments during and after the election, Trump really believes robust economic growth and job creation is a cure for all ills. And he's betting his cabinet picks will remove the regulations and taxes that stifle growth and jobs in the fastest, if not the most diplomatic, way to get them back.

He's also betting that the people who are the angriest about his picks are either career politicians or activists who will never support him and don't represent the bulk of the voting public anyway. In other words, Trump doesn't think the average American is scared or aggrieved about his cabinet picks. He's betting the people are only going to care about results.

Sure, it will be different if slashed regulations on everything from the environment to Obamacare indeed leads to smog crises in the cities and thousands of Americans suddenly being turned away at hospitals and doctors offices. But it's not that Trump and his cabinet choices wouldn't care if those doomsday scenarios occur. It's just that they clearly don't think those things are going to happen anyway. So they're going to cut and slash first and ask questions later.

And Trump's belief that reducing regulations by appointing several cabinet members who are actually hostile to them comes from deep inside his ethos. Trump does not seem to be loyal to any discernible Right/Left political ideology, but he certainly brings a strong business owner ideology to the White House.

During his entire public life and certainly during the campaign, Trump has sounded like the majority of small and medium-sized business owners and CEOs when they talk about taxes and regulations. He excoriates arcane and time consuming tax laws, prohibitive environmental regulations, and any scenario where political connections seem to outweigh personal talent or business competitiveness. These are the tenets of Trump's economic and societal faith, and he thinks most other people believe them too.

This is probably why Trump is having the hardest time making his choice for Secretary of State. This is the one job that seems least likely to provide a direct and positive impact to domestic economic growth. Foreign policy can of course have tremendous economic effects. But to achieve that it needs some kind of cooperation from other countries and Trump is likely more comfortable dealing with what he and the United States government can do unilaterally under his leadership.
Trump is also likely being strident about his other cabinet choices because his experience in the 2016 election tells him that political ideologues are losers compared to people with business acumen and non-political achievements on their resume.

Remember, Trump beat a bevvy of 16 ideologically conservative Republicans in a landslide GOP primary performance. Then he took down a leader of liberal ideological identity politics in the general election by beating Hillary Clinton in 30 out of 50 states. Losing the popular vote means nothing to Trump, and neither does the idea of using his precious cabinet picks to placate those whose political sensitivities are currently wounded.

In a year or two, he's betting that the politicians and ordinary Americans with ideological ties to environmental causes, public education, union clout, etc. will be even more outnumbered by everyone else who simply wants more economic prosperity. Until then, Donald Trump doesn't really care about your feelings.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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