March 29, 2016
Love him, hate him, or wind up in the increasingly shrinking middle, you have to concede Donald Trump has driven the conversation on the GOP policy side. As Bernie Sanders has yanked Hillary Clinton to the left, Trump has moved some Republican candidates in his direction and forced all to deal with his issues.
He claims he’s the only reason immigration is an issue. That’s false, but he’s right Cruz is mimicking him when he talks about building a wall and deporting illegals. Interestingly, Trump’s first signature issue is the least popular with Republicans.
In some surveys, more than half of GOP voters are in favor of a path to citizenship for those who are here without invitations and have not committed any crimes (beyond their arrival, or visa overstay.)
With immigration, it’s not so much the issue itself, but Trump’s willingness to say things he shouldn’t. When he responded to Mexican objections to paying for his wall by saying he’d make it 10 feet higher, his supporters cheered, even if they aren’t on board with the deportation aspect.
At a core level, he connects by making Americans question why they can’t protect their own border. Opponents, be they other Republicans, Democrats, or Independents miss the point when focusing on who is going to pay for the wall, his plans to deport, or his comments about rapists.
It’s not that those things are irrelevant. They are part of why Trump has an extremely negative favorability rating and why his polls among Latino voters are often scary. But the basic point about protecting the border against terrorists and unwanted permanent guests is what resonates.
This idea continued to The Donald’s stance against accepting Syrian refugees, which then morphed into preventing any Muslim non-citizens from entering the country after Paris and San Bernardino.
The entire party is with him on the refugees. That became a baseline point. A decent amount of Democrats and a large percentage of Independents agree. In a non-Trump world, this does not happen so quickly and with relative unanimity on the center-right.
Banning Muslims is another matter. Trump is the only presidential candidate to have gone this far. Even he has introduced a few qualifiers and isn’t suggesting it become a permanent condition, just something “until we figure out what the hell is going on.”
The wall launched Trump to the top of a crowded field. The Muslim ban pushed Trump consistently over 30% in national polls for the first time. A minority of Americans support this, but it’s popular with a majority of GOP primary voters, especially in many of the states he’s won.
The Donald started talking about trade from the beginning. It wasn’t in a way elite ears are used to hearing. Instead it was about America not winning anymore. Losing to Mexico, and China, and Japan, and now Vietnam. He repeated this over and over and over and over again for months.
When Trump talked about the wall, his opponents didn’t offer a whole lot of alternatives. They just criticized how he talked about Mexicans, arguing that wouldn’t work well in a general election with plenty of Latino voters.
They aren’t wrong that he’s creating a possible demographic tragedy for the GOP at the voting booth, but in debating word and tone to the exclusion of convincing voters they would take concrete steps to finally secure the border, his opponents ceded the issue.
Same thing on preventing ISIS-directed/inspired terrorist attacks on American soil. More discussion about how Trump was contrary to American values than how to effectively secure the homeland. Any GOP candidate hoping to push the conversation in another direction needs to address both issues, not just Trump’s impertinence.
Cruz began talking about carpet bombing ISIS. This did him some good. On both the border and ISIS, he’s the not-quite-Trump option. He’s more aggressive on both than the conventional Republican establishment/elite stance, but doesn’t go as far over the line.
The catch is you can wind up being unacceptable to everybody just as easily as the reverse. Get criticized for wanting to bomb civilians in Syria and Iraq while others question your commitment for hesitating to endorse waterboarding and being willing to allow Muslims into the country.
Either way, he’s following and responding to Trump on these issues rather than leading the conversation. The same happened on trade. He’s now running ads in Wisconsin talking about fair trade.
We’ve gone from Trump’s litany about American losing to everybody to a consensus about the dangers of unrestricted free trade, built on agreements negotiated by elites to the benefit of large corporations and foreign countries.
Some of this is Trump, a good part is Bernie Sanders. The two have combined to bring this back as a major issue. Polling now indicates Americans of all political persuasions are more skeptical about trade than any time in the last couple/few decades.
Again, whatever the methods, however he’s spoken, regardless of whether you believe threatening China with a 45% tariff is a good idea, Trump has huffed and puffed and made this a central issue, much to his benefit.
If the wall launched him into the atmosphere, blocking Muslims sent Trump into lunar orbit, and slamming free trade policies helped him do the equivalent of landing on the moon, collecting the largest amount of delegates and winning the majority of states so far, the NATO issue provides him with an opportunity to return safely to Earth and win the nomination.
As usual, there is a core point to his position that actually does make some sense. It’s reasonable to worry about the border, reasonable to worry about who is entering the country, reasonable to want trade policy to benefit regular American workers.
It’s also reasonable to re-evaluate the role of NATO in the age of Islamic terror, almost thirty years after the Berlin Wall fell. Exactly what benefit does an almost seventy-year-old treaty organization, one originally created to respond to Joseph Stalin and the Iron Curtain, provide now?
To what extent should Europeans provide their own security? What percentage of the total financial contribution come from America? How well is NATO set up to deal with terror, as opposed to nation states? The bombs in Brussels were not real far from NATO headquarters. Shouldn’t this bother someone over there?
Trump is not suggesting we immediately exit NATO, or the treaty organization, arguably the most successful in human history, be disbanded forthwith. He is suggesting it’s time for a review.
Whether negotiating trade policy or military treaties, the underlying principle for Trump is what’s good for America. He wants to win every deal, and is not ok with agreements that seem to help our partners more than us.
Many conservatives have criticized President Obama for treating enemies better than friends. A President Trump would want to re-evaluate who our friends are and wouldn’t want to give those who make the cut any special treatment anyway.
His opponents have universally condemned this approach. Cruz immediately attacked Trump for daring to question the usefulness of NATO at a time of turmoil. John Kasich thinks we need more engagement with NATO, not less.
It’s easy to build the line of attack, whether in a Republican primary or in the fall. Trump says nice things about Vladimir Putin and indicates he wants to get along with him, while demanding NATO countries pay their own way.
For those of us who grew up with the Cold War political structure, this is madness. What responsible leader would say such things? But this isn’t 1950 or 1980. Things have changed and we have not had a full national debate on what that means for American foreign defense policy and foreign economic policy.
Both NATO and the extensive series of post-World War II trade agreements were set up to bind various recovering Western and Asian countries to the American internationalist pro-capitalist system. If they weren’t with us, they’d likely wind up with the Russians.
Creating a security umbrella and providing access to our domestic market was the price of admission to both keep them on our side and help produce economic conditions that would keep their citizens on the side of capitalism and make their countries strong enough to eventually stand on their own.
It worked, the Wall fell, and Russia and China moved (if perhaps unevenly) towards capitalism. Now there’s a vacuum, both on the security side as ISIS spreads throughout the Middle East and North Africa where disorder allows, along with infiltrating Europe with multiple cells, and economically, as regular American workers have seen their pay stagnate for two generations.
News Flash: American voters aren’t ok with the status quo. Saying we should continue doing something because we’ve done it as long as most people can remember isn’t likely to work real well.
If the response to Trump is that a serious candidate doesn’t question NATO, it’s one more step towards handing him the nomination. We haven’t had a serious debate on this in the entire 25+ years since the Cold War officially ended.
Ted Cruz and John Kasich are more than capable of talking about foreign policy, national defense and how NATO fits into American goals and security needs. That and only that will convince those few remaining voters who have the balance of the GOP nomination in their hands to ditch The Donald and pick one of them.
Simply saying Trump isn’t allowed to talk about this won’t work any better than it did with the border, Muslims, or a 45% tariff on China. He’s responding to a gap in the public discourse over unsolved issues. The only response is to have plans to solve the issue.