Donald Trump has achieved his Phase I campaign objectives: through bravura, chutzpah, and brute force of larynx, he now claims the loyalty of about one-third of those who say they’ll vote in the Republican primaries. After a long delay, it’s time for Phase II: broaden the base.
Victory demands it. As dominant as he may appear based on the headlines and his own demeanor, he simply can’t win from where he is now.
As the New York Times’ Ross Douthat points out, there is “no credible scenario in which a consistent 30 percent of the vote will deliver the delegates required to be the Republican nominee.” Moreover, a comparable bloc of Republicans still insist they find him an unacceptable candidate—28% versus 7-13% for comparative centrists such as Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich.
Even if Trump should win the nomination, Republicans represent less than half the electorate—and in matchups against Hillary Clinton, he consistently polls below Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush. Even more than the typical establishment candidates, who might reasonably expect a nomination to at least bring about a consolidation of support within their own party, Trump needs to improve his image with voters outside it who feel caught in the middle.
In the coming weeks, many such constituents in Iowa and New Hampshire—the latter voting in an “open primary” where independents play a critical role and famously value consensus-builders—must decide if they want to turn their “protest polling” into actual political commitment. Thursday evening’s GOP debate may be Trump’s moment to try and persuade them that while he’s an immoderate man, he has a very moderate vision—and that given the sclerosis in Washington, it will take the one to achieve the other.
It seems implausible given his various past outrages, but writers for the New York Times and Slate have promoted this interpretation before. Trump seems to see that now is the time to subtly press this point himself. After demanding last month to be romanced before tepidly committing to support the GOP’s ultimate nominee, this week he didn’t hesitate to make the No Labels “Problem Solvers Promise”—a pledge “to work with both parties on big goals that matter to the American people.” Headlined by uber-centrists Joe Lieberman and Jon Huntsman, the pledge includes specific targets for creating jobs, shoring up Medicare and Social Security, balancing the budget, and achieving energy independence.
The Daily Beast’s Eleanor Clift called Trump’s acceptance of the No Labels imprimatur a “hijacking”; many scoffed that a bomb-thrower like Trump would hardly follow through on such a consensus-driven platform. But perhaps it’s not as absurd as it seems. The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman last week credited Trump with combining positions “from the isolationist right, the far right, the center right and the center left”—the latter two practically shorthand for “No Labels.”
To be sure, an even temperament would mark a strange evolution of the Trump political brand. But could the right policy mix—specifically, Trump’s current grab bag from across the spectrum—amount to a sort of “centrism” that ought to resonate with voters in the middle?
The short answer: no, not even close.
Trade. Presidents as ideologically diverse as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have all been close enough to the center to prioritize free trade, often to the chagrin of the extremes in both parties. Trump’s threat to raise tariffs against China, Mexico, and others risk global trade wars and “would actually be a tax on American consumers,” as University of Michigan professor Mark J. Perry told Politico—and it defies the modern American political mainstream.
Taxes. What Trump would take away with one hand, he would return with the other: his tax plan would whack more than a fifth of federal receipts over a decade. That’s versus a 6% reduction projected from George W. Bush’s plan in 2001, and an increase of 3% in President Obama’s 2016 budget. Here, Trump’s plan is well to the right of both.
Immigration. Trump’s deportation agenda would sting economically. Moody’s Mark Zandi sums it up: “If Trump’s policies were enacted it would be some form of disaster for the economy”—with the heaviest burden falling on those with the fewest skills. No one in the political center is willing to risk this outcome.
Healthcare. During the first GOP debate, Trump answered a question this way: “As far as single payer, it works in Canada. It works incredibly well in Scotland. It could have worked in a different age, which is the age you’re talking about, here.” It was a lament masquerading as political evolution. But in truth, Trump merely dodged the question. Where healthcare is concerned, Trump is a socialist. No wonder Hillary Clinton felt free to quip on Monday that the mogul is “really more of a Democrat” in her eyes.
Foreign policy. To a war-weary electorate that continues to prioritize national security, Trump has something for everyone. One day, he’d abandon Syria to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions; another, he’d “knock the hell” out of ISIS and “take back the oil.” Isolationism and cowboy diplomacy used to run on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum; with Trump, they romp hither and yon.
Combining the best of left and right-leaning policy positions is an important tool for certain kinds of centrists (like Lieberman). But what do you call those who marry the worst of both sides?
The amalgamation of Trump’s single-payer healthcare fantasies, 19th-century trade protectionism, break-the-bank tax agenda, and strategically lacking foreign-policy trigger-finger defies categorization. Perhaps in some pollster’s Excel model, it averages out to some twisted sort of Franken-centrist.
Of course, Trump himself shuns all such labels and instead uses the apolitical terms of the business world, particularly “competence” and “common sense.” While such can-do rhetoric may resonate with an exasperated electorate, Trump’s actual policies fall everywhere but in the middle. If the many still-undecided voters of Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond accept them, then the entire political center—not just the GOP establishment—may need to develop an anti-extinction program.