Trump's Losing Strategy

The morning after the shutdown ended, Donald Trump was back on Twitter acting as if he had not suffered utter and complete humiliation at the hands of Nancy Pelosi. After 35 days of bluster and empty threats, the president walked away from the negotiating table with nothing. But don’t worry, his hardcore supporters tell us, in three weeks Trump will triumph. He now has the Democrats exactly where he wants them. Maybe that’s their way to deal with devastating disappointment. It is not mine.

Trump’s decision to fold and re-open the government was the culmination of a political strategy based on pure wishful thinking and willful disregard of historical voting patterns. It was Anthony Scaramucci who, back in August 2017, suggested the president was going to change direction. After his brief stint at the White House, The Mooch gave his first interview to George Stephanolopoulos and said:  

But you also got this sort of 'Bannonbart' influence in there, which I think is a snag on the president. If the president really wants to execute that legislative agenda that I think is so promising for the American people, the lower-middle-class people and the middle-class people, then he has to move away from that sort of Bannonbart nonsense.....He's got to move more into the mainstream. He's got to be more into where moderates are and the independents are, George, that love the president. And so if he does that, he'll have a very successful legislative agenda that he'll be able to execute. And if he doesn't do that, you're going to see this inertia, and you're going to see this resistance from more of the establishment senators that he needs to curry favor with.

In other words, for Trump to have a successful presidency he needed to cast aside the populists, nationalists or the very voters that provided his margin of victory. Generally, presidents seeking re-election work to expand their base, not contract it or create a completely different coalition, especially when the new coalition requires winning voters that have consistently shunned the GOP. Apparently, Trump bought into the strategy suggested by Scaramucci - no doubt with the help of Princess Ivanka. A few days after the interview was aired, Steve Bannon left the White House and the “forgotten man” was forgotten again.

The electoral strategy of moving away from the “Bannonbart nonsense” is not new. Republican strategists have long dreamed of creating a new and more diverse political coalition of white college educated voters with a larger share of minority voters - be it Latino, black or Jewish. They argue that, if the GOP wants to survive as a national party, it must adjust to the demographic changes the country is undergoing. That may be true but in 2016 Trump showed that the White House can be won with a populist agenda. He won states that had eluded Republican presidential candidates since 1988. I suspect that the desire for a new coalition has less to do with demographics and more to do with the GOP establishment being ashamed and resentful of having to rely on white working class voters whom they see as “bitter clingers" or “deplorables” just like, respectively, Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton do.

With his new political mission in hand, Trump set about assembling the new coalition. In September 2017, the president tweeted that Dreamers were “good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs” who “have been in our country through many years for no fault of their own.” A stark departure from his campaign promise of "they have to go [back]". By January 2018, Trump was  proposing to nearly triple the  Obama-era DACA program. It was Democrat intransigence and full commitment to their "resist" strategy than prevented the president from betraying his populist voters.  

During his many rallies leading up to the mid-terms, the president boasted about the record low unemployment numbers among blacks and Latinos. He would brag about his support for Israel and the many ways he had backed the Jewish state such as withdrawing from the Iran deal and moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. However, at some point before election day the Trump campaign must have realized that the economic numbers were not attracting minority voters. Only a small percentage of America Jews vote based on policy towards Israel. Moreover, focusing on the economy and tax cuts was not energizing his populist base. Late into the campaign, Trump suddenly returned to the themes of immigration and border security. He floated the idea of issuing an executive order aimed at ending birthright citizenship. The shift in emphasis was too late to save the House but it did help expand the majority in the Senate.

Trump's strategy to go "mainstream" also set up him to lose the shutdown battle with the Democrats. His decision not to focus on building the wall starting on day one undercuts his claim that there is crisis or an emergency at the border. One does not wait two years to address an emergency. A responsible Commander in Chief does not ignore for two years a crisis to focus on tax cuts and moving embassy personnel. If the caravan is threat to our national, why is Trump relying on other countries to address the problem? The president did not hesitate one second to bomb Syria over Assad allegedly gassing his own people but when it comes to Mexican drug cartels poisoning our own people, he is waiting on Mexico, a narco-state, to address the problem. It’s just not credible. It’s not convincing and that is why his Oval Office address on border security failed to get traction with the public.

After the humiliating cave on the shutdown, the president's supporters found solace in the upcoming State of the Union address. According to them, this is Trump's golden opportunity to turn the tide. To change the narrative and win public support for the wall. It is more wishful thinking. More likely, we will see a doubling down on his strategy to forge a new political coalition. He will try to recast himself as a centrist, problem solver who wants to bring the country together. He may throw a few rhetorical bones to the populists, not because he believes in their cause, but because he cannot afford to completely lose their support. It is more likely that Trump will make a pitch for DACA amnesty than invoke emergency powers to begin building the wall. Personally, I would prefer that Trump skip SOTU and go dark - I have heard enough words - and only re-emerge with a shovel in his hand breaking ground on the big, beautiful wall he promised.