Trump’s missile attack on the Syrian airbase is confounding both Left and Right and evidences how difficult and slippery are the politics of his first hundred days.
The attack itself seems popular and carefully calibrated, two words not otherwise applicable to his presidency. It’s fair to ask what happens next and what policies underlie the use of force, but taken in isolation he’s gained public support.
The harder Left reflexively abhors the use of force and sees this as step one into another Mid-East quagmire. The harder Right views this as a broken promise, a traditional American use of force and worst of all a rupture in their hoped-for alliance with authoritarian Russia.
Neither faction commands much support in the nation. And it again illuminates what a successful Trump administration could look like. There is a pathway to that end.
But not if Trump continues to make the mistakes he’s made so far. He was not elected as a “Movement Conservative,” not as a Paul Ryan acolyte, and not as a member of the Freedom Caucus. He has tried to placate the Congressional Right by gutting Obamacare, slashing core domestic programs used by his base, and picking silly fights on things like arts spending and meat-axing popular U.S. Attorneys like Preet Bharara. The things that made him interesting have languished, like a real infrastructure program and maintaining Social Security and Medicare.
The Syrian missile strikes certainly changed the subject. Instead of kissing Putin’s samovar, he stands up to him. Instead of callous disregard for human suffering, he smites the criminal. Instead of timid negotiations, he boldly warns North Korea, Iran and ISIS that armed attack is possible, even likely.
These two competing dynamics sort of cancel each other out. Trump remains deeply unpopular, even with a poll mini-surge right after the strikes. Unless and until he finds the kind of third way domestically that he tumbled into in Syria, his poll numbers will harden, his base will lose its’ fire and the Democratic base will energize. But consider the consequences of a “third-way” infrastructure program, a real reconfiguring of Obamacare, tax reform that benefits Trump voters, and trade deals that address the needs of trade war losers. Add that to the surprise foreign policy and you can see a mini-surge turning into something bigger.