Although still early, conservatives who supported Donald Trump in November can feel vindicated. They can arrive at this conclusion by two routes: a net assessment of the administration’s record and a comparison of what might have been. If all this seems self-evident now, it is worth remembering that for many it was not obvious just six months ago.
The first 100 days is an unrealistic measuring stick for any administration. It originated with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term when he entered office as the Great Depression entered its fourth year. Roosevelt’s party had overwhelming congressional majorities — 23 seats in the Senate and 196 in the House (Republicans currently hold a four-seat Senate majority and 37-seat House majority). FDR therefore had the presidency’s greatest motivation and means when he took office.
For conservatives, measuring President Trump by this yardstick is particularly unrealistic because it only looks at half the equation. Exit polling showed the quality most voters sought was “change” — 39 percent, almost double the next highest (“right experience,” at 22 percent). Change is measured by what is done, but also by what is not. Conservatives therefore should be equally concerned with what this administration chooses not to do — a far harder thing to quantify.
How then should conservatives appraise Mr. Trump’s early record?
Unquestionably, Mr. Trump has had his failings. Obviously, the largest has been not replacing Obamacare. While hardly solely (or arguably, even primarily) attributable to Mr. Trump, what happens when you are president, you own — for better or worse.
The president has also had his successes. The largest is Judge Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. He has also signed 11 pieces of legislation passed under the Congressional Review Act overturning Obama regulations, and Mr. Trump has continued Mr. Obama’s aggressive use of executive orders — only going in the opposite direction.
Yet the real conservative measuring stick for Mr. Trump — whether during an arbitrary first 100 days or four full years — comes down to a comparison — not just of outcomes, but alternatives. And the biggest alternative to be considered is the state of affairs if Hillary Clinton had become president.
The idea that there could have been a different Republican nominee should be peremptorily dismissed. There was no shortage of Republican alternatives. Mr. Trump did not just beat them, he destroyed them. Republicans’ nomination contest was far less close Democrats’. So imagining what a different Republican president would now be doing — let alone comparing him to the actual one — is just that, imaginary.
Similarly, the only alternative to the Trump presidency — for conservatives or anyone else — is a Clinton presidency. Those two alternatives then, must equally form our comparison now.
For conservatives, this reality leads to four comparisons.
First, what should be obvious to everyone is that what conservatives like and Mr. Trump has done, Mrs. Clinton would not have done. Mr. Trump was the only alternative for these initiatives, such as the Gorsuch nomination, and he delivered.
Second, what conservatives dislike and Mrs. Clinton would have done, Mr. Trump has not done. Again, Mr. Trump was the only alternative to preventing such initiatives and he has delivered. All the last-minute Obama regulations would still be in effect were Mrs. Clinton president.
Third, what conservatives do not like and what Mr. Trump has done, Mrs. Clinton would have done, too. Conservatives can fill in the blank here, if they feel it useful, but the end result would not have changed with Mrs. Clinton as president. And any hope for improvement here stands a far better chance with Mr. Trump than it would with Mrs. Clinton.
Fourth, what conservatives do like and Mr. Trump has not done, Mrs. Clinton would not have done, either. However far the Obamacare replacement fell short in March and may fall short in the future, Mrs. Clinton was not going to replace the law or allow it to happen — ever.
In other words, in these four basic comparisons, Mr. Trump is either an absolute or a net winner for conservatives.
Certainly, there will be conservatives of Machiavellian persuasion who will muse about alternative scenarios with better long-term outcomes — if Mrs. Clinton won last November, if Mr. Trump doesn’t seek re-election, if Mr. Trump loses to a Democrat in 2020. However, all rest on far flimsier assumptions than the solid reality of conservatives’ current situation.
The chance that Mr. Trump won’t run in 2020? In the last century, only three presidents (Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson) were eligible for re-election and did not do so.
Ditto, that Mr. Trump won’t be renominated or will lose re-election: No sitting president has been denied renomination in the last century and only three elected presidents (Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush) lost re-election.
That somehow a Trump general election loss would better advance conservatives’ goals? The three presidents who did lose re-election were each replaced by presidents who won multiple terms. Conservatives could reasonably expect a liberal to be in office for eight years.
Conservatives can certainly take issue with Mr. Trump’s performance in office. However, his presidency has confirmed one thing: He was the only alternative to the continuation of the Obama legacy. As a result, for conservatives “never Trump” is less and less justified, and even less and less a realistic option for the achievement of their goals.
• J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget and as a congressional staff member.