Voices from across the political aisle came together at the University of Virginia on Wednesday to discuss the future of the American presidency.
The panel discussion, titled “Has Trump Changed the Presidency Forever?” was moderated by Professor Larry J. Sabato, founder and director of UVA’s Center for Politics. It was the first in a yearlong series of events and discussions on democracy presented by the center and UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, called “Democracy in Perilous Times.”
- Brit Hume, a senior political analyst for Fox News Channel and panelist on the weekly public affairs program “FOX News Sunday,” and a UVA alumnus;
- Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and CNN political commentator who served as the national Hispanic campaign chairwoman for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, held a similar position for Jon Huntsman in 2012 and supported Jeb Bush’s candidacy in 2016;
- Symone D. Sanders, a Democratic strategist and former national press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, now a communications consultant, CNN political commentator and spring 2018 resident fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School; and
- Marc Short, former assistant to the president and director of legislative affairs for President Donald Trump, newly-appointed senior fellow at UVA’s Miller Center and Darden School of Business alumnus.
The discussion attracted a large crowd, with row after row of students, faculty and community members filing into Newcomb Ballroom.
It was a spirited discussion, even tense at points, but respectful as the panelists covered a wide variety of topics, ranging from allegations of chaos within the administration raised by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward’s new book and a rare anonymous op-ed in the New York Times to the president’s handling of immigration and other hot-button issues and his use of social media.
“I’ve moderated hundreds of panels and some of them have four people who agree on everything. Those can be deadly dull,” Sabato said at the end of the event. “This was not one of those panels.”
Some of the panelists expressed deeps concerns around Trump’s chaotic style of governing, particularly as it is expressed on Twitter. Navarro said Trump’s antics have raised questions about the standard of behavior Americans will hold for future presidents.
“Can anybody other than Donald Trump get away with this kind of behavior in the future?” she asked. “He has said and done so many things that would have killed any other campaign, crippled any other presidency. In my view, there has also been a complete and abject failure by the Republican Congress to provide checks and balances.”
Short, the only panelist who had worked within the Trump administration, told the audience that the president does listen to staff and take differing opinions into account. He also touted the administration’s accomplishments so far, particularly economic growth, deregulation and the appointment or expected appointment of two Supreme Court justices and numerous other judges.
“He has done many things that the Republican Party have wanted to do, and other things that previous candidates have campaigned on but never done,” Short said, citing the relocation of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Jerusalem as one example. “He continues to deliver on what he promised to do for the American people.”
Short also said Trump was elected precisely because he was different from a typical politician.
“The American people elected their president knowing he operates in a different style,” he said. “They were frustrated and believed what was happening in Washington was no longer representative of them.”
Other panelists, and some members of the audience, questioned if the gains of the Trump presidency were worth the cost.
“The things that the president has done will not be undone overnight, and he has forever moved the goalpost,” in terms of behavior, Sanders said.
Navarro also took issue with the idea that economic gains should outweigh moral concerns she sees in the administration.
“Economic numbers don’t rule the day, because a large swath of Americans have decided that character matters, that morality matters, that humanity matters…” she said.
Hume summed up the dilemma for many conservatives.
“It is almost like having two Trumps: one who goes into meetings and gets results that, if you are a conservative, look pretty good,” he said. “Then one who publishes these Tweets that may thrill his base, but get him into a lot of gratuitous trouble that he could easily avoid. He is a man who has difficulty seeing past himself, utterly self-absorbed. It is remarkably immature, but so far it has not proved crippling.”
Despite their differences – and there were many – the panelists agreed that events like Thursday’s discussion were important for maintaining a healthy democracy.
“One reason the work the Center for Politics does here is so important is because young people are looking for ways to be engaged and involved,” Sanders said. “We need spaces for that, we need people to be thrown together with people who don’t identify with them ideologically. I am a progressive, but that does not mean I think everyone should be a progressive. People are trying to figure out how to have high-level conversations with people they disagree with and I don’t think television media is giving us that right now.”
Navarro seconded her.
“One of the things I think we have lost, and where universities can play an important role, is the ability to embrace diversity of thought,” she said. “We are getting too used to hanging out with people we agree with and only hearing things that we agree with. That is why institutions like this, and panels like this, where we clearly don’t agree, are so important.”
That is a key reason that Sabato, the Center for Politics and the Batten School have planned more than two dozen similar events this year in their symposium series, “Democracy in Perilous Times.”
The series will host numerous speakers, including Martin Luther King III, Republican strategist Karl Rove, former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile, CNN’s Jim Acosta, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff and many others.
It will also feature the 20th annual Youth Leadership Initiative national student mock election, held just a few weeks before the Nov. 6 midterm elections.
A complete schedule of planned events is available here.