The continuing campus protests by the Left against U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may grab the headlines, but another real political concern for her and the president lies with her relationship with the Right.
The importance of the base for President Donald Trump cannot be overstated. Mark Penn, the co-director of the Harvard-Harris poll, wrote last month in an opinion piece for The Hill, “No poll I’ve seen puts [Trump’s] support from Republicans at below 80 percent, and we at Harvard-Harris have it at 84 percent, which is remarkable, given his knock-down-drag-out fight with some mainstream Republicans.”
Indeed, despite the recent Democrat gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey, a Washington Post-ABC News poll released on Nov. 6th, the day before those elections, showed that Donald Trump would still beat Hillary Clinton if the 2016 election were held today because Trump, according to the Post, “has still got enough hold of his base to win reelection if there was a rematch today.”
Penn incisively says that it is the president’s positions on issues that undergird his strength with his base: “His style is not what won him the presidency. It was, remarkably, his substance.” The Trump base, therefore, evaluates the president and, by extension, his top subordinates, such as cabinet leaders like DeVos, based on their perceived adherence to the populist conservative agenda that Trump enunciated during the campaign and now in his presidency.
As opposed to cabinet picks like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, who have well-publicized views that comport with the beliefs of the president’s base, the selection of DeVos was a mystery to many of Trump’s supporters and a cause of worry to others based on their perception of her previous policy positions.
Take the Common Core State Standards. Jane Robbins, senior fellow with the Washington-based, conservative think tank American Principles Project, observed, “One of candidate Donald Trump’s biggest applause lines when campaigning was his promise to end the common core,” and that promise “claimed an importance with grassroots citizens.”
The controversy over DeVos’ views on common core is well known. She said she opposed common core despite the support for those standards by organizations with which she was associated.
Ze’ev Wurman, a senior policy adviser at the Education Department during President George W. Bush’s administration, told me that concern over DeVos’ stance on the common core was and is most pronounced among “grassroots activists in the states,” who are “the mothers in Indiana, Ohio, Florida, and Missouri, who were still furious with their own state-based Republican politicians that played the bait-and-switch game on them with the common core’s ‘rename-and-retain’ game.” DeVos’ problem, he said, is “with the Trump base rather than with the [Washington] Republican crowd.”
Similarly, in an email conversation I had with Robbins, she said, up until now, not enough has been done “to mollify” Trump supporters and conservatives. “The only education issue Trump talked about during the campaign was the common core,” she said, “but nothing has been done to address that.”
Robbins has this advice for DeVos regarding the standards: “The U.S. Department of Education can’t end the common core, but it can reassure states, vocally and loudly, that they may choose any standards they find appropriate and suffer no federal penalties for doing that.”
When I asked Wurman and Robbins about issues that DeVos could address to allay the concerns of Trump’s grassroots activist supporters, both said that she should focus on student privacy and data collection.
Wurman, who praised DeVos’ handling of new guidance on Title IX, noted that the Obama administration changed regulations for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, to give both government and private organizations broader access to student education data. DeVos could undo these changes “and argue that she is simply undoing Obama’s opening the floodgates for student personal information flowing to private and noneducational players, which should make a serious impact on the grassroots [base] that [is] incensed by it.”
Robbins agreed and advised that DeVos “should at a minimum move to withdraw the Obama regulations.”
President Trump, more than most presidents have, depends on the support of his core base. Cabinet members such as DeVos can help the president in mobilizing this essential grassroots support, like former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett did for President Ronald Reagan. To do so, however, will require addressing issues that are important to these constituents, putting to rest their suspicions, and building their trust.