Thursday, June 2, 2016
Is Trump the next Reagan?
I am increasingly accepting the idea that Donald Trump could be our next President. The numbers indicate that he should be defeated terribly based on his ratings with women and Hispanics. That may change though.
Trump also had high negatives among Republicans a year ago. He has largely won them over. A year ago, Trump held extremely high negatives among most Republicans and had support in the 20%-30% range. Today, 87% of Republicans say they will support Trump. Part of this is the Republican notion that they must "get in line" behind the nominee and be a good soldier. Part of this is the almost irrational fear some Republicans seen to have of a Hillary Clinton Presidency. Whatever the motive, Trump has unified the party far more than I ever thought he could.
Unifying Republicans is one thing though. Winning the majority support of the country is quite another. Many Americans not only see Trump as wrong headed. They see him as dangerous, out of touch with reality, and without the background, experience, or temperament to run the country.
Many people said the same thing about Ronald Reagan in 1979-80. Although Reagan had been Governor of California, he was primary known as an actor with little political experience. His nearly irrational hatred of Communism might have led him to start a nuclear war. His almost insanely unrealistic economic views, which a fellow Republican called "voodoo economics" could have possibly destroyed the economy. Many Americans considered him extremely dangerous.
By the numbers, many would argue that Reagan's critics were right. His tripling of the national debt was seen as the height of fiscal irresponsibility, even if it did provide short term economic boosts. His deregulation lead directly to the S&L crisis of the 1990's and other problems. His decisions to provide weaponry to the Taliban in Afghanistan, to support Saddam Hussein with military aid, to sell military equipment to Iran, and to retreat in the face of a terrorist attack in Beirut all created problems for his successors. His plan to lower taxes for the wealthiest while increasing payroll taxes for working people only increased the income disparity that remains an even larger problem today.
Despite all this, many people still consider the Reagan presidency a great success. The economy was much better during his term in office than during the ones immediately prior and subsequent. His actions are largely credited for contributing to the fall of the Soviet Union. His penchant for deregulation was seen as a factor in unleashing the economic power of the United States. Beyond that Reagan's speeches and actions made Americans feel proud and confident.
Many would argue that Trump is no Reagan. His positions are erratic, he has no good grasp on the issues, and many of his speeches are divisive, if not outright racist. The same sorts of things though were said about Reagan. We look back at his presidency with the lens of history. He did not start WW III. His economic polices are generally now deemed a success (though there is still debate about whether Reagan's policies deserve all the credit for the economic improvements). But at the time, in the 1980's, Reagan's critics strongly criticized his intelligence, knowledge of issues, grasp on reality, personal prejudices, and dangerous militarism Many similar charges are now levied at Trump.
This does not mean that a President Trump would have the same perceived success of the Reagan Presidency. It simply means that the establishment criticism do not necessarily spell doom. Reagan had a hard time winning over establishment Republicans, but did so. He had an even harder time winning over the public, bud did that too, winning two elections with overwhelming victories.
Reagan's gift as a politician was his ability to win over supporters without getting into the weeds on policy questions. Most voters looked at him as someone who inspired confidence and had an abstract vision for a great America. Trump seems to have a similar gift. He is able to inspire voters to have confidence in him as a leader in the abstract. He is able to draw voters to him without them having a clear idea of what policies he might implement. In short, they trust him as a leader, regardless of what policies he might implement.
This is not to say Trump would necessarily have the same level of success as Reagan. Wild cards are wild for a reason. Things may fall into place for him and work out well. But they could just as easily fall apart and his patina of confident leadership will be wiped away. Think George W. Bush and Iraq.
Even if Trump can be compared to Reagan in terms of voter support, he faces a growing demographic problem. In 1984, when Reagan won overwhelming reelection, he received only 9% of the Black vote, and 34% of the Hispanic vote. Those anti-Reagan votes were not enough to overcome his overwhelming support with white voters, even in States like Florida and California or the entire Southwest. Today the lack of minority support would be a much larger issue as the number of minority voters, particularly Hispanics, has grown considerably. It is hard to imagine winning a great many states without significant Hispanic support at least in the mid-40s. Black voters are also voting in much larger numbers than in the 1980's. Reagan also won 58% of the women's vote, compared with 62% of men. Trump has strong negatives with women based on many of his comments. His numbers with women are only around 33%. He would need to get those number up at least 10 points before it would not be fatal to an election win, even if he can get a strong majority of male support.
Demographic issues aside, it does seem unlikely based on historical contests that an establishment technocrat with little charisma could beat a flamboyant outsider who gets a sizable minority of the country so excited. At this point, voters seem to be looking at Trump to see if they can live with him. If they can be convinced that he won't completely destroy the country they will give him their vote rather than the much hated opponent whom they also dislike. Against that, Trump could convince enough Hillary haters to give him the victory.
Please don't think by my writing this that I will ever support Trump. I absolutely will not. But then, I did not support Reagan either.