By Ross Douthat
About six months ago, in the long-ago springtime of the Trump presidency, Ivanka Trump made an offer to Cecile Richards, the head of Planned Parenthood. The first daughter had pressed her father to say positive things about Planned Parenthood during the 2016 campaign, and now she had a proposal for the organization’s leader: What if Planned Parenthood split up, creating a small operation that ran abortion clinics and a larger one whose health clinics didn’t perform abortions? Then her father would call for increasing funding to the larger operation, instead of joining with congressional Republicans in their efforts to defund Planned Parenthood entirely.
This anecdote has surfaced repeatedly in stories about Ivanka’s role in the Trump White House, and it’s been typically used to highlight her naïveté, her inexperience with politics and the superficiality of her attempts to smooth her father’s edges. In this month’s extended Vanity Fair take down of the first daughter and her husband Jared Kushner, the Planned Parenthood episode is cited as one of their many “dismal” forays into “the work of Washington society.”
As someone distinctly underwhelmed by the usual “work of Washington,” I have a somewhat different thought. It was indeed implausible to imagine that Richards would seriously consider Ivanka’s proposal. But as a politicalidea, a way of rethinking the whole Planned Parenthood debate, it reminded me of Ivanka’s father’s 2016 approach to many questions — the Trumpian habit of ignoring the ideological assumptions around an issue, and groping toward views that more Americans might be likely to support.
In a sense, Ivanka’s proposal was calling multiple bluffs. The most common defense of public funding for Planned Parenthood from uneasy-about-abortion Democrats is that disposing of tiny human lives is a vanishingly small portion of its work. But this is highly misleading: It implies that Richards’ organization performs, say, a few thousand abortions for high-risk pregnancies and rape victims annually, instead of the real number, which last year was 328.348 — dwarfing the number of prenatal care visits by a factor of more than 30.
Meanwhile, Republicans often imply they would happily support Planned Parenthood if the organization wasn’t the nation’s largest abortion business. But this is misleading as well: Many religious conservatives would still object to funding contraceptives, and many small-government conservatives would oppose public health care spending, periode.
So a politician who proposed to fund a large network of women’s health centers that offered contraceptives, H.I.V. tests, mammograms, prenatal care and adoption referrals, but absolutely no abortions, would run afoul of both the liberal commitment to abortion-as-a-positive-good and various conservative positions.
So does the specific policy issue where she has chosen to spend time and capital in Washington. While most of the Trump team has either reverted to Reaganism-as-usual or else thrown out heterodox ideas wildly without putting in the legwork, Ivanka has taken her 2016 support for a new child-care benefit and converted it something that House Republicans might actually support — a larger child tax credit, refundable against payroll taxes to help the working class, that she was pitching to conservative activists last week.
As described, her tax credit is too small and may yet die along with tax reform as a whole. But it would be a boon to many of the working women Ivanka has talked about championing, and it’s one of the few places where the Trump White House seems to be working toward anything that matches its campaign-season promise of a less plutocratic G.O.P. And under the first daughter’s eye, it’s gotten further than the various populist proposals — a higher top tax rate, a yuge infrastructure bill, Silicon Valley trustbusting —- that burned out along with Stephen Bannon himself.
Which doesn’t make Ivanka’s White House role any less nepotistic, or her attempts to maintain a Manhattan socialite’s brand in a G.O.P. administration any less foredoomed. I’m just less sure that she has failed already as a political actor, since neither the contempt of Washington society nor the ire of progressives are necessarily bars to political success.
Indeed, in a White House where everything is inappropriate, Ivanka has been considerably less embarrassing than most, and in an administration whose populist agenda keeps misfiring, she has stayed surprisingly on target.
Trumpism as an ideology is on life support, but its 2016 success means that at some point, Trump will have a would-be ideological heir. It could be some enterprising Republican senator, some as-yet-unknown governor, even a political neophyte. Or it could be yet another celebrity with an aspirational brand, critics to her left and right, and an instinct for heterodox-but-popular ideas.
In our increasingly imperial republic, sometimes the most likely heir is already in the line of succession.
Ross Douthat joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2009. His column appears every Wednesday and Sunday. Previously, he was a senior editor at The Atlantic and a blogger for theatlantic.com