When in his 1964 GOP acceptance speech Barry Goldwater declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” a reporter sitting near journalist/historian Theodore White famously exclaimed: “My God, he’s going to run as Barry Goldwater!”
Six weeks into Donald Trump’s general election campaign, Republicans are discovering that he indeed intends to run as Donald Trump.
GOP leaders who fell in line behind Trump after he clinched the nomination expected, or at least hoped, he would be willing to adjust his more extreme positions and tactics.
Two problems. First, impulse control: Trump says whatever comes into his head. Second, a certain logic: Trump won the primaries his way – against the odds, the experts and the conventional rules. So why change now?
Hence his response to the Orlando terror attack. Events like these generally benefit the challenger politically because any misfortune that befalls the nation gets attributed to the incumbent party.
The textbook response for the challenger is to offer sympathy, give a general statement or two about the failure of the incumbent’s national security policy, then let the resulting national fear and loathing, amplified by the media, take effect.
Instead, Trump made himself the (political) story. First, he gave himself unseemly congratulations for his prescience about terrorism. (He said more would be coming. What a visionary.) Then he implied presidential sympathy for the enemy and reiterated his ban on Muslim immigration.
Why? Because that’s what Trump does. And because it worked before.
But the general election is a different game. Trump assumes the Republican electorate is representative of the national electorate. It’s not.
The other major example of doing what’s always worked is the ad hominem attack on big-dog opponents. It worked in the primaries.
Hillary Clinton is a lousy campaigner but her machine is infinitely larger and more skilled than any of Trump’s 16 GOP competitors. More riskily, Trump is now going toe-to-toe with a sitting president.
Barack Obama is a skilled campaigner who clearly despises Trump and relishes the fight. And he carries the inestimable advantage of the gravitas automatically conferred by seven and a half years of incumbency. Moreover, he now enjoys an unusually high approval rating of around 53 percent. Trump’s latest favorability is 29 percent (Washington Post-ABC News).
It’s no accident that Trump’s poll numbers are sliding. A month ago, when crowned as presumptive nominee, he jumped into a virtual tie with Clinton. The polls now have him losing by an average of six points, with some showing a nine- and 12-point deficit (Reuters/Ipsos and Bloomberg).
This may turn out to be temporary, but it is a clear reflection of Trump’s disastrous general election kickoff. His two-week expedition into racism in attacking the Indiana-born “Mexican” judge. His dabbling in conspiracy. All of which suggests, and cements, the image of a man who shoots from the hip and is prone to both wild theories and extreme policies.
Reagan biographer Lou Cannon thinks that the Goldwater anecdote is apocryphal. How could anyone (even a journalist) have thought that Goldwater, who later admitted he always knew he would lose, was going to run as anything but his vintage, hard-core self?
Same for Trump. Give him points for authenticity. Take away for electability.