Wednesday

December 13th, 2017

Insight

A do-it-yourself presidential campaign won't work

Fred Barnes

By Fred Barnes

Published March 21, 2016

Donald Trump was wise to decline to join a 13th and final Republican presidential debate. He has little new to say and not much that’s compelling or interesting. He began the 11th debate by calling Mitt Romney "a failed candidate" and "an embarrassment to everybody." And in his next-to-last comment, he insisted his rivals "don't deserve" any credit for the record Republican turnout in primaries and caucuses.

Trump is a resourceful and clever candidate. His tweets are pungent. His ability to capitalize on free media is extraordinary, sparing himself the cost of blanketing voters with TV ads. He spurns advice from those who know far more than he does about serious issues. On Morning Joe last week, he was asked whom he speaks

Donald Trump was wise to decline to join a 13th and final Republican presidential debate. He has little new to say and not much that’s compelling or interesting. He began the 11th debate by calling Mitt Romney "a failed candidate" and "an embarrassment to everybody." And in his next-to-last comment, he insisted his rivals "don't deserve" any credit for the record Republican turnout in primaries and caucuses.

Trump is a resourceful and clever candidate. His tweets are pungent. His ability to capitalize on free media is extraordinary, sparing himself the cost of blanketing voters with TV ads. He spurns advice from those who know far more than he does about serious issues. On Morning Joe last week, he was asked whom he speaks to about foreign and national security matters. "I'm speaking with myself, number one," he said. "My primary consultant is myself."

For all the success this approach has brought Trump in advancing toward the Republican nomination, it won't work in the general election against Hillary Clinton, or even against Bernie Sanders. If he pursues it, he'll lose badly and bring the GOP down with him.

Trump hasn't locked up the Republican nomination yet, but let's assume he does. As weak a candidate as Clinton is, he'll start out trailing her. No doubt he'll attack her relentlessly and probably effectively. That won't be enough. To win, he'll have to change himself and modify the way he operates.

In the primaries, Trump has been a one-man band. He has an advance staff to set up his appearances and speeches. But that's it. With few exceptions, it's all he has needed, since his performances have been at the center of his campaign.

But general elections are different. As nominee, Trump won't be concentrating on states one at a time. A national effort requires "a professional apparatus that's a complement to the campaign behind his performances," says Scott Reed, the chief political adviser to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Reed was campaign manager for nominee Bob Dole in 1996. Trump may view the Republican consultant class skeptically, but he'll need to tap into it for a field operation and policy development team.

North Carolina, a must-win for a Republican nominee, is a state in which Trump would have to deploy a strong organization. He "won the North Carolina primary with very little ground game and virtually no radio or TV," says GOP strategist Marc Rotterman. "To win in the fall, Team Trump is going to have to bulk up its efforts. Hillary Clinton is already hiring some of the folks who worked in North Carolina for Obama in '08 and '12. That team was highly effective."

And Trump can't rely on the media to continue treating him like the crown prince of candidates. "He took the TV ratings model and turned it into turnout," Reed says. That was impressive. But against Hillary, he'll discover what liberal bias does to Republican candidates. He won't like the way it puts him on permanent defense.

A bigger problem is the absence of party unity. Trump has summoned Republicans to "unify," as if they're obligated to line up behind him. Not a chance. Trump must woo them by changing his tune on policies conservatives, among others, detest.

Michael Needham, the CEO of Heritage Action, says that populists and conservatives must unite. Trump, if he's the nominee, "will need to lead an effort that is not only populist but deeply committed to advancing a conservative agenda. If he does, he will find a conservative movement eager to work with him," Needham wrote in Real Clear Politics. This makes political sense. And it's up to Trump to act on it.

Much of Trump's trouble with conservatives is avoidable. Why pretend that Planned Parenthood is a fine organization that just happens to do more than 300,000 abortions annually? Why claim that President George W. Bush lied about WMD in Iraq when the evidence is overwhelmingly and irrefutably to the contrary? Why stick to the idea of deporting 11 million illegal immigrants when a majority of Republicans favors offering a path to legal status—53 percent in the exit poll of GOP voters in Missouri last week, for instance?

But Trump's half-baked opinions on foreign and national security policy are the biggest turnoff for Republicans from the center to the right. "I know what I'm doing and I listen to a lot of people," he said on Morning Joe. But anyone who's watched him struggle to answer the most basic questions on international and defense matters knows this isn't true.

He's been promising since last September to gather the "finest team anyone has put together" on foreign policy to advise him. Yet no team has been assembled. Meanwhile, 117 "members of the Republican national security community" issued a brutally critical statement of opposition to Trump as Republican presidential nominee.

"He would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world," the statement said. "Furthermore, his expansive view of how presidential power should be wielded against his detractors poses a distinct threat to civil liberty. [Thus] we commit ourselves to working energetically to prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office."

Trump would have to swallow a lot of pride to talk to some of these critics. Perhaps that's too much to ask. But having backpedaled on torture, it should be possible for him to have second thoughts about his admiration for Vladimir Putin, his advocacy of waging trade wars, and his anti-Muslim language that "undercuts the seriousness of combating Islamic radicalism by alienating partners in the Islamic world making significant contributions to the effort."

Back in 2014, Trump read Rick Santorum's wonderful book Blue Collar Conservatives. It led him to base his presidential bid on appealing to working-class Americans, a constituency Republicans had ignored. But he missed part of that book's message. Santorum as a presidential candidate didn't just deliver speeches. He listened to people. Trump should give that a try.

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Fred Barnes is Executive Editor at the Weekly Standard.

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