Protesters at Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 29, 2017. Photo by Cindy Chu.
The rollout of President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration (though not necessarily the order’s overall thrust) was a rookie mistake – a colossal brain freeze on which the already-mobilized “resistance” to his presidency promptly and effectively capitalized.
Even the most talented rookies make rookie mistakes, however. Everyone expects them, and they seldom are serious enough to permanently mar an athlete’s record, or a president’s.
John F. Kennedy authorized the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, in which U.S.-backed insurgents tried to topple Fidel Castro. Woefully unprepared, practically none made it off that Cuban beach except in the custody of Castro’s forces. Kennedy may have had misgivings about the CIA-sponsored coup plot he inherited from the Eisenhower administration, but he had campaigned as a war hero and military hard-liner who was going to close the missile gap and curb Communist expansionism. So he went along.
The Bay of Pigs helped provoke the Cuban missile crisis the following year. But Kennedy learned from his mistake. When he confronted the Soviets over their missile installations in October 1962, he rejected the immediate use of force and imposed a blockade (which he euphemistically called a “quarantine”) around the island to prevent Moscow from completing its project. He also quietly signaled to the Soviets that if they removed their missiles from Cuba, the U.S. would remove its own missiles from Turkey sooner rather than later.
Three months after his own inauguration, Jimmy Carter informed us that the “energy crisis” was the “greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes” and called it “the moral equivalent of war.” He told citizens to pull on our sweaters, turn down our thermostats and lower our expectations. But Carter had no plan to win the war he had just declared. Price controls and a “windfall profit tax” on oil companies practically guaranteed less domestic production and greater dependence on OPEC, which continued to boost global prices and restrict output.
Unlike JFK, Carter never learned from his mistake; he doubled down on it. When prices surged and gasoline lines spread across the country in 1979, Carter blamed the citizenry – his own soldiers in the “war” he had declared – for exhibiting a national malaise. Looking back, you would almost think Carter was running against a second term, rather than for one. President Droopy Drawers was trounced in 1980 by the ever-sunny former actor, pitchman and California governor, Ronald Reagan.
On the surface, Reagan seemed to skate through his first year in office. But when what we would later call the AIDS crisis surfaced during the summer of 1981 (we did not have that name for another year), Reagan made his rookie mistake by dismissing or downplaying the ramifications of what some were calling the “gay plague.” America lagged for several years in researching and developing therapies for the devastating new disease, and the administration did not react forcefully until after AIDS began spreading into the straight and non-drug-using population, largely through contaminated blood transfusions. The ensuing alienation of the gay community from the Republican Party persists to this day – so deeply, in fact, that the prolonged opposition by leading Democrats to same-sex marriage is all but forgotten, or at least forgiven.
George H.W. Bush made his error before he even took office, on the night he was nominated. “Read my lips: no new taxes,” he declared at the 1988 GOP convention. Even Reagan had accepted a rollback of his signature 1981 tax cut to boost revenue before the huge tax overhaul that was enacted a few years later. When budget pressures ultimately forced Bush to accept a tax increase, neither his own party nor the opposition ever let him forget it.
Bill Clinton’s rookie mistake was the controversial development and unsuccessful advocacy of health care reform under his wife’s direction. “Hillarycare” contributed to Democrats’ loss of their House majority in 1994, the first time in decades Republicans had secured a majority in that chamber.
Between the controversy over his whisker-thin electoral victory and the shock of 9/11, George W. Bush scarcely had time to make a rookie mistake in his first year. So he made it in his second, by presenting the forthcoming invasion of Iraq – easily justifiable on other grounds – as a response to Saddam Hussein’s development of weapons of mass destruction. Bush’s credibility was badly damaged when it became clear such weapons did not exist, although he still won re-election in 2004.
Barack Obama’s term is too recently ended to have consensus over whether he made a rookie mistake, and exactly what it was if he did. I would argue that his “elections have consequences” arrogance, coupled with the intensely partisan way in which his party passed stimulus measures and the Affordable Care Act, qualify for the title. The president famously took a “shellacking” in the 2010 congressional midterms, while Democrats steadily lost ground at both the state and federal levels throughout his tenure.
A common thread in all these famous blunders is a tendency to speak, or occasionally to act, without appearing to have a Plan B for dealing with failure or even with predictable opposition. This is exactly what happened to Trump when he announced a temporary ban on entry to the U.S. for travelers from seven largely Islamic countries that either sponsor terrorism (Iran) or in which terrorist organizations control territory or have a base of operations.
The executive order, which was both signed and implemented on Friday, triggered confusion and protests at airports nationwide. White House press secretary Sean Spicer defended the abrupt implementation of the order, claiming that a prior announcement would have created a window during which people would have “flooded into the country in a short amount of time to take advantage before the ban went into effect.” However, by implementing the order immediately, the administration caused uneven enforcement, including long detentions and at least some deportations. Legislators from both sides of the aisle expressed concern at the way in which the order was implemented.
Despite the arguments of its critics, the order was far from a “ban on Muslims,” leaving out nations that contain the vast majority of the globe’s Islamic population. But the White House knew, or should have known, that its political opposition was eagerly awaiting the next set of “victims” of Trump policies to publicize, and a label in which to wrap what would have been the weekend’s inevitable protests. The administration obligingly delivered.
There was never any basis or sense in including American permanent residents, or “green card” holders, in the order, which would have excluded individuals based on just the random accident of whether they happened to be outside the country. The Department of Homeland Security has clarified that this apparently was never intended. But the White House sent mixed messages, leaving border agents to sort things out after the order went into effect. This led to prominent American residents, such as British Olympic athlete Mo Farah, to protest that they feared exclusion from their home and separation from their families – although it turns out this was never truly in the cards.
It would have been a simple matter to allow all visa holders who were already in transit to clear U.S. customs and immigration formalities. This would have prevented the airport detentions and the Trump “defeats” that the media pronounced when several federal judges temporarily enjoined officials from returning those who had already arrived to their countries of origin. Most were eventually admitted anyway, but only after hours of detention and after attracting throngs of demonstrators and lawyers to airports to protest. Allowing visa holders through also would have avoided the spectacle of Iraqis and others who had helped American soldiers being barred from this country while virtually at its doorstep.
Now that the dust has settled, those who are covered by the order are, in nearly all cases, simply waiting in places where they have already been waiting for years for a chance to come here. A few more months of delay will make little practical or political difference, other than to those directly affected and their families. This is not a trivial matter, but it is not a political crisis for Team Trump, either. A little forethought could have avoided a lot of mess.
But Trump and his administration are rookies. They seem to think they need to accomplish the entire agenda for his first 100 days in office in just the first 10 or 20. Or maybe it is a deliberate strategy to take so many controversial steps so quickly that the resistance does not know which ones to resist soonest or hardest. With Trump it can be hard to tell. He makes a lot of apparent mistakes, but so far they have not hurt him much. And when it comes to blunders by presidential rookies, history has shown that more often than not, any damage is transient.