Six weeks ago, when Donald Trump declared for president amid much hoopla and media hype, I suggested that Hillary Clinton’s miracle might have finally appeared. By “miracle” I referred to the so-called Third Party Solution – first introduced by the Clintons in 1992. That was when zillionaire Ross Perot burst onto the political scene to excite conservative Republicans and former Reagan Democrats with his common-sense fiscal message on lowering taxes and spending, and ending the much-hyped “Bush Recession.” (Bill Clinton called it “the worst economy since the Great Depression.”) A fawning media – whose liberal denizens saw exactly what Mr. Perot was doing to Mr. Bush – gave Perot so much coverage and support that he drew off 19% of the popular vote and cost the president his re-election. Most of the voters who pulled the lever for Perot would almost certainly have gone for Mr. Bush. Mr. Clinton sneaked in the back door with a mere 43% of the popular vote. Mr. Bush managed only 37%.
When I wrote about Mr. Trump in June, I had no idea if he would consider standing as a third-party candidate. But in the past week he has more than hinted that he would consider a third-party run if the GOP leadership doesn’t treat him fairly. He didn’t define what “fairly” meant, in his mind, but he left us with a distinct impression that his failure to gain the GOP nomination might be his signal to go for the gold in the third lane.
Big Media – leaning mostly leftward, politically – breathlessly leapt on The Donald’s veiled threat as a “hallelujah moment” for Mrs. Clinton. Many correspondents and pundits know exactly what Ross Perot did in ’92, so they were overjoyed to see possible third-party salvation appear for their embattled “Boadicea.” As layer upon layer of scandal is peeled back from Mrs. Clinton’s troubled tenure as Secretary of State, and as the Clinton Foundation’s questionable funding details gradually emerge, even yellow-dog Democrats have begun to question her electability. Indeed, some party operatives are casting about for a plausible replacement – e.g., the venerable Joe Biden. But the prospect of a strong third-party candidate who could split the Republican vote would change the entire election calculus and possibly save Mrs. Clinton’s run.
I truly hope Mr. Trump does not go third-party, but that question is secondary to his campaign right now. As a direct political force, the Trump candidacy is – by my assessment – four parts sales-hype, three parts serious policy-speak, two parts ego-trip, and one part outrageous rhetoric meant to garner media attention. (Argue with my fractions, if you will, but all of those elements are clearly part of The Donald’s shtick.) Whether he is truly a serious candidate remains to be seen.
Mr. Trump tends to suck all the air out of the room – just as Bill Clinton used to do, and as Barack Obama does now – leaving very little space on the stage for anyone else. He is not a stupid man, but he sometimes says stupid things – I believe just to watch the media go crazy. For Mr. Trump, it’s the actor’s age-old question: Did they spell my name right?
As a media star, he is fully capable of seizing control of any multi-candidate presentation, shouting down others (including the moderator), and completely wrecking the event. He is a political bar-room brawler par excellence – the Maharajah of the Unpredictable, the Sultan of Slur, the Master of Disaster. He is the Muhammed Ali of politics. The media love the action he furnishes and the fact that he excuses them from covering other serious (but less exciting) candidates like Ben Carson. The Donald would be terrific as a new star for remakes of Lethal Weapon or Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Wouldn’t it be great to see him knock Vlad Putin right on his imperious butt?) The question voters have to answer, however, is: do we really want this in a president?
The consequences of Mr. Trump’s candidacy for the Republican Party are both positive and negative. On the positive side, he is drawing a lot of media attention away from Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump is much more entertaining than a “tahred” 68-year-old woman with a plastic smile, a tedious voice (that brings your high-school librarian to mind), a hackneyed “message” straight from the progressive/Eugenics era, and approximately 1500 pants-suits. (Who knew there were that many colors?) Another plus Mr. Trump brings is that other GOP candidates are bound to look moderate, contrasted with his bombastic style and sometimes silly statements. Hopefully, enough voters are looking for more than just a cheap thrill from a candidate, and will look more closely at other horses in the GOP stable.
Realistically, though, I’m not hopeful on this last point. Many voters chose Barack Obama because he “sounded so good,” because his rhetoric gave them a thrill, or because his impeccably tailored trousers had a perfect crease. Most had no idea what he planned to do as president, and many have been dismayed at how badly he has performed in the job. Trouble is, that same crowd could repeat that flawed selection-technique (using the term loosely). This poses a terrible risk for the country. We’ve got to stop doing this, but there are few signs that the media are trying to help voters choose more wisely.
But I digress. On the negative side of the ledger, the bad news is that Mr. Trump is drawing attention away from Mrs. Clinton. (Yes, I did enter this as a positive factor for the GOP.) Mrs. Clinton is running a class-envy, wealth-sharing, gender-warfare campaign that offers anything but “hope” for the country. It appeals to certain slices of the electorate, but surely not to thinking independents and Reagan Democrats who will see right through its retro-message.
Hillary Clinton wants to take us back – not forward to a strong, renewed and united country, but back to hoary New Deal and Great Society policies. Nearly every reputable economist now admits that the economic programs of those great progressive “leaps forward” were costly flops. Her entire campaign shtick is division. She is going for the victim-vote. What thinking person wants another four (or eight) years of that mess? Millions thought Mr. Obama would end the race and gender strife, but he did the exact opposite. Do we really want a president whose campaign is actually based on more of it?
In fact, the more exposure Mrs. Clinton’s campaign gets, the worse things become for her. (Polling data clearly show this.) Thus, the more Donald Trump diverts Big Media, the better it is for Mrs. Clinton. Essentially, she is running as a Dark Horse candidate – even though her candidacy is fully declared and her name-recognition is high. If she can fly under the media-radar for the next year, she could sneak into the Oval Office without much media attention on her “message.” It’s not impossible. Stranger things have happened.
As I noted in my fractional parsing of Mr. Trump’s campaign, he does serve up some straight talk on issues that matter to many Republican voters. For instance, he speaks directly about illegal immigration. He says too many criminals are crossing our borders. Of course, he is right. Some bad guys are coming in, and we stink at stopping them. Many citizens are mad as hell about this. It certainly needs correction. Other candidates dance around it and try to stay politically correct and in the good graces of the Washington Post. Mr. Trump doesn’t do this. People like his boldness and independence. I get that. I like it, too. At some level, he is performing a valuable service for the GOP by showing that a principled stand – even if articulated in a controversial style – can be attractive to Republican grass-roots voters. His numbers are impressive, and Big Media haven’t been able to knock him out of the ring. Other GOP candidates are taking note and speaking out more boldly.
Critics warn that Mr. Trump’s bombastic style and unguarded statements will smear other Republican candidates by association. Liberal pundits (who obviously want to “help” the GOP) say Mr. Trump radical declarations could define mainstream GOP thought to the public – thus damaging the Republican “brand.” How plausible is that? I don’t know, but color me doubtful. True liberals – including those trying to be so “helpful” to the GOP – will never vote for any Republican, no matter how politically correct and polite he is. Those who think Republicans are stupid, bigoted Bible-thumpers and gun-nuts will be confirmed in their belief. That much we do know.
We also know that Mitt Romney’s polite, non-confrontational style caused so many conservatives to sit on their hands that he lost the election. He was a gentleman to the last, while Democrats knocked him all over the ring with virtual impunity. He never laid a glove on Barack Obama – never even threw a punch. Republican voters didn’t go for that. They wanted a fighter, not a doormat.
The real game, as it turns out, is energizing your base and getting it out to the polls. If you do this, and if you’re a strong-looking candidate with a sound message, a goodly number of voters from the political center will rally to you. Mr. Romney was a decent man of many impressive accomplishments. He was knowledgeable and extremely successful. He understood business better than most presidents since Calvin Coolidge. He had been a governor. He was an excellent family-man. He would have been a fine president. But the milquetoast-strategy failed. Mr. Trump is betting that he knows a better way – one that fits his natural temperament.
Donald Trump has burst out of the gate like a whirlwind – taking the GOP field by storm, amazing his party and dismaying his foes. When the media criticize him, he returns fire. He knocks over the furniture and throws punches. The spectacle is immensely diverting.
But these are early days. The contest for the presidency is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a 50-round bout – a prolonged war of words (and sometimes dirty tricks). Whether Mr. Trump can hang in there remains to be seen. Republican voters want a champion, not a wuss. The Donald seems to think he can be that guy. If nothing else, conservatives won’t have to sit and cringe as Democrats throw stink-bombs at their guy with no response. That, alone, would be a welcome change.
So we’ll see how it works out. Meanwhile, hang on for the ride. It could be a wild one. We live in interesting times.