The Wollman Rink episode, or, rather, the unduly optimistic conclusion I drew from it, explains a lot about Donald Trump’s presidency and why he may not do as well against Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) in the contest for the Republican nomination, as current poll numbers suggest.
The story of the ice skating rink repair is now ancient history, a reference even fewer readers will find familiar than when I featured it in a column in December 2016, a month after Trump’s surprise election as president.
The Wollman Rink was first opened in 1945, but due to mismanagement by the city government, it deteriorated over the years, and by 1984, when the Trump Tower opened just a few blocks away on Fifth Avenue, it wasn’t working at all, even after the city government spent $13 million over six years trying to fix it.
Enter Trump, who offered to get the rink working, and did so, as he recounted in his 1987 memoir, “The Art of the Deal,” ahead of time and $3 million under budget. Maybe as president, I speculated, he could transform government procedures and eliminate endless environmental reviews and enable the public seriously to build infrastructure again.
No such luck. Even as the head of the executive branch, and for the first two years with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, Trump did not come close to making the deep reforms needed to make American infrastructure great again. It seems that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), with a razor-thin majority in the House and facing a Democratic Senate and president, may have gotten more than Trump ever did.
Why was I mistaken? I failed to draw the appropriate lesson from Trump’s own account. He admitted he knew nothing about skating rinks and that he needed experts who did. He decided he could find them most easily in Canada, a technologically advanced country with thousands of working ice-skating rinks. Months later, New Yorkers were once again ice-skating in Central Park.
As president, he seems to have operated similarly, not bothering to master issues himself but hiring purported experts and relying on them to get things done. But too often, the skating rink didn’t get repaired, or the expert failed to show the respect the president craved.
And what Common Good’s Philip Howard called the “decade-long review and permitting procedures (that) more than double the effective cost of new infrastructure projects” stayed in place. A missed opportunity for the nation.
Rather than lay the groundwork for fundamental reform, Trump’s typical response was to denounce his appointees, the highly talented and utterly incompetent alike, and seek out yet other purported experts.
Sometimes, the results were good. Operation Warp Speed, a suspension of usual procedures with a huge outlay, produced COVID vaccines that, though not preventing infection, significantly reduced death rates.
But not always. Trump largely turned over COVID policies to credentialed experts such as Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, who pushed him toward advocating restrictive policies. Fauci, who had funded research in the Wuhan lab, worked secretly to quash the lab leak theory and to smear as incompetent scientists who favored less stringent restrictions. A president more inclined to ferret out details on critical problems might have prevented such misconduct.
Such a president might also have moved against policies for which there proved to be no scientific justification — school closings and masking of schoolchildren, for example. Such positions were, in fact, taken by Trump’s leading opponent for the 2024 nomination, DeSantis, whose mastery of details and bureaucratic process produced less economic damage.
Now, we have the spectacle of Trump denouncing DeSantis for policies that Trump followers tended to favor and praising former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who sent COVID patients back into senior citizen facilities. Unmoored by any obligation to accuracy or consistency with past positions, Trump is flailing out from multiple directions at the man he clearly recognizes as his strongest opponent.
DeSantis, after his glitchy announcement Twitter event, seems to be aiming directly at Trump’s weakness. “Leadership is not about entertainment,” he said earlier this week in Iowa. “It’s not about building a brand. It’s not about virtue-signaling. It is about results.”
Normally, voters do not have much information about a candidate’s executive modus operandi. About Trump and DeSantis, and about Joe Biden, they do. In their party’s two leading candidates, Republican voters have a choice between a former president with a record of deferring to experts with mixed and sometimes dismaying results, and a state governor with a demonstrated capacity for mastering the details on issues and following through and getting results.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.
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