What Might Have Been

Donald Trump was going to be a good boy. He was no longer going to obsessively attack other Republicans he had already defeated in the primaries, or who didn’t matter a whit in the general election, for days at a time. He was no longer going to spend two or three days obsessively attacking minor figures, who weren’t running for anything at all, who he felt had somehow insulted him. He would also try to keep himself from blurting out that Vladimir Putin was a fine man and a great leader, who had called Trump a genius, which he hadn’t. He would try to keep the facts straight about Crimea and Ukraine, or at least learn them. He would stop saying NATO was stupid and that all our allies needed to pay up big time, for our protection of them, or they could just go join the Russian Federation for all he cared. He would stop talking about which nations he would nuke if he felt that they had insulted America, or had insulted him personally, or his wife and kids or whatever. He would also stop attacking the press, saying that once he was president he would get Congress to change the libel laws and then sue the Washington Post, and bury them in massive defensive legal costs that would force them out of business – and then do the same to the New York Times and CNN and MSNBC and anyone else who he thought had treated him unfairly. People may hate the Washington Post – some do – but people also like the idea of a free press. Leaders in the Republican Party told him to tone that down.

What would he do? He would attack Hillary Clinton, as he should, and he would lay out a few policy positions, to let folks know what he would do as president. Promising to hit back hard at anyone who disrespected him is not much of a public policy. Sneering vindictiveness isn’t policy at all. That’s what leaders in the Republican Party were telling him, which must have puzzled him – he’s new at this – but somehow he gave in. He finally gave a policy speech in Detroit:

Donald Trump, whose campaign has tapped into economic anxieties and nostalgia for a bygone American greatness, promised to be the president with an economic vision for a better future in a speech here Monday.

In an address that was interrupted at least 14 times by protesters, the Republican nominee outlined a number of changes to his original tax plan, aligning the income brackets with the plan proposed by Paul Ryan and congressional Republicans, while also proposing excluding childcare expenses from taxation, ending the estate tax and carried interest deduction and cutting taxes across the board.

Trump offered no details on how he intended to fund the cuts, other than promising to eradicate the country’s trade deficit.

Perhaps that’s not policy at all then, but it was what it was:

Speaking to more than a thousand people at an event hosted by the Detroit Economic Club here Monday, Trump lamented this city’s economic collapse, which he attributed to the country’s abandonment of an “America First” economic approach.

“The city of Detroit is the living, breathing example of my opponent’s failed economic agenda,” he said. “Every policy that has failed Detroit has been fully supported by Hillary Clinton. The one common feature of every Hillary Clinton idea is that it punishes you from working and doing business in the United States.”

Trump, now trailing Clinton by 10 points in the most recent poll of Michigan voters, promised that Detroit “will come roaring back” under his leadership.

How? He didn’t say. He said this:

He attacked Clinton for a “short circuit” moment in which she “accidentally told the truth” and said that she would raise taxes on the middle class, even though she has not. He stated, “No one will gain more from these proposals than low-and-middle income Americans”; the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, however, has concluded: “the largest benefits, in dollar and percentage terms, would go to the highest income households.” And Trump repeated a claim that the government employment figures are manipulated even though not a single serious economist has validated the claim.

And there was this:

Trump also focused on reducing regulations, boosting domestic energy production and reducing business income taxes to 15 percent. And he promised to “remove bureaucrats who only know how to kill jobs; replace them with experts who know how to create jobs.”

That’s a little vague, and that hurt:

Trump did not insult any fellow Republicans, crying babies or Gold Star families, eschewing the typical tangents that punctuate many of his public remarks and giving hope to those calling on Trump to adopt a more presidential bearing and a more consistent case for a Trump presidency and against Clinton.

But to many economists, Trump’s carefully crafted, teleprompter-delivered address is a thin veneer that doesn’t obscure the candidate’s crude approach to the economy and a political sales pitch that is not at all reality based.

“He has no coherent economic theory unless you repeal the rules of math,” said Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Michigan. “He’s put Social Security and Medicare in a lockbox, promised massive tax cuts – which he claims at his rallies are for the middle class but most goes to the rich – and he claims he’s going to balance the budget. And these things are incompatible. The only way that can happen – it would have to be the greatest growth in the U.S. economy, in any economy, in the history of the world.”

This was fluff:

Trump again emphasized the importance of re-writing trade agreements to generate more economic growth and called NAFTA “a strike at the heart of Michigan,” noting the decline in jobs for autoworkers since President Clinton signed the trade agreement.

“Detroit is still waiting for Hillary Clinton’s apology,” Trump said. “I expect Detroit will get that apology right around the same time Hillary Clinton turns over the 33,000 emails she deleted.”

In his hour-long speech, Trump did not offer specifics on how his trade deals would improve on current ones; and as he lamented the employment decline in Detroit’s auto industry, Trump also failed to recognize the role of automation in reducing the number of manufacturing jobs.

And this:

Many economists don’t believe eliminating the trade deficit will be enough to spur the economy out of the low growth mode the U.S. and the global economy more broadly have been stuck in for more than a decade.

“It’s like his clock stopped in the 1980s when he worried about our trade deficits with Japan, and never restarted. He’s just swapped out Japan for China,” said Jim Pethokoukis, a columnist and blogger at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“It’s doubtful that even working class voters actually believe he’ll restore America’s 1960s manufacturing heavy economy. Recall his economics speech near Pittsburgh where he made that back-to-the-future claim [promising to restore its steel production], and ignored how Pittsburgh is reinventing itself as a tech hub,” Pethokoukis continued.

“Overall, his economic plan to this point has been a hodgepodge of economic policies that may please certain groups of voters but does not hang together in any coherent way nor provides credible solutions to the economic problems facing 21st century America.”

Damn! It’s hard being a good boy, and Ben White has more:

“This economic plan appears to be the good, the bad and in some cases the ugly,” said Lanhee Chen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution who was a top policy aide to Mitt Romney in 2012.

On Wall Street, analysts also criticized the speech as vague and reliant on questionable statistics. “My general response is that one speech does not make an economic plan and most of what he relied on was hyperbole,” said David Kotok, chief investment officer at Cumberland Advisors. “Let him do a dozen more of these and flesh out the specifics and then you could actually begin to analyze things.”

Yes, this did not go well:

Trump added a proposal to allow families to deduct the cost of child-care from their taxes, an idea that, according to Trump adviser Stephen Moore, says could cost $20 billion per year and largely benefit wealthy families, rather than low-income earners who spend more of their money on child care but pay little in federal taxes.

These tax proposals leave Trump open to attacks from Hillary Clinton’s campaign that his plans are more of the same trickle-down approach that Democrats say has exacerbated economic inequality.

“The child care deduction is a horrible idea,” said Chen. “If they are going to be in general election mode and try to appeal to independents and women voters, the proposal should be tailored to serve those voters and this policy isn’t. I want to be sympathetic but they wound up in the wrong place.”

And this is devastating:

“He’s not really a Republican and this is mostly an economic policy that the Clinton campaign could have put together,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin of the conservative American Action Forum. “This was a political creation not a policy creation and so in the end you have this weird stew of policies that is supposed to create a unique 21st century economy that would instead deliver us back to the economy of 1964.”

And while the trade aspects of the speech might appeal to frustrated voters unhappy with slow wage gains, it also included a pledge to halt new regulation, including on Wall Street, an approach that could also give Clinton an opening to critique Trump as doing the bidding of the banking industry.

“Upon taking office, I will issue a temporary moratorium on new agency regulations,” Trump said in a line that lobbyists will love but that Democrats immediately seized on to launch new attacks.

Of course they did. It seems that Donald Trump is bad at both politics and policy:

“There are legitimate arguments to be made about some economic indicators not accurately reflecting the frustration many Americans have about the economy not living up to its potential,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican and partner at Hamilton Place Strategies. “But framing the unemployment rate as a ‘hoax’ actually ends up diverting the debate. It may rally a core group of already ardent supporters, but the end result is a litigation of a conspiracy theory that matters very little to voters genuinely open to being persuaded on economic issues.”

But the broadest critique of Trump on Monday was that he gave an incoherent speech with little in the way of clear message. “He decided he needed to get female voters to stop hating him, so he included the kids-thing. He needs blue-collar workers so he did the anti-trade and immigration stuff. And he wants to agree with congressional Republicans so he did the Ryan tax cuts,” said Holtz-Eakin. “In the end, he just winds up in no-man’s land with no clear idea what the plan really is.”

Okay, he was faking it, trying to sound both bold and well-informed, with something for everybody. How was he supposed to know it was supposed to hang together and make sense? The evangelicals still love him, even if he is crass and crude and mean and on his third trophy wife. The fiscal conservatives aren’t nearly as forgiving. Why? But there are the national security hawks, and Trump says he’ll slap the world around bend the world to his will. They have to love that, but somehow they don’t:

Fifty of the nation’s most senior Republican national security officials, many of them former top aides or cabinet members for President George W. Bush, have signed a letter declaring that Donald J. Trump “lacks the character, values and experience” to be president and “would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.”

Mr. Trump, the officials warn, “would be the most reckless president in American history.”

The letter says Mr. Trump would weaken the United States’ moral authority and questions his knowledge of and belief in the Constitution. It says he has “demonstrated repeatedly that he has little understanding” of the nation’s “vital national interests, its complex diplomatic challenges, its indispensable alliances and the democratic values” on which American policy should be based. And it laments that “Mr. Trump has shown no interest in educating himself.”

“None of us will vote for Donald Trump,” the letter states, though it notes later that many Americans “have doubts about Hillary Clinton, as do many of us.”

That was odd:

While foreign policy elites in both parties often argue among themselves – behind closed doors, or politely in the pages of Foreign Affairs magazine – it is extraordinarily rare for them to step into the political arena so publicly and aggressively. Several former midlevel officials issued a similar if milder letter in March, during the primaries. But Monday’s letter included many senior former officials who until now have remained silent in public, even while denouncing Mr. Trump’s policies over dinners or in small Republican conclaves.

And this was predictable:

Late Monday, Mr. Trump struck back. The signatories of the letter, he said in a statement, were “the ones the American people should look to for answers on why the world is a mess, and we thank them for coming forward so everyone in the country knows who deserves the blame for making the world such a dangerous place.” He dismissed them as “nothing more than the failed Washington elite looking to hold onto their power.”

Mr. Trump correctly identified many of the signatories as the architects of the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. But he also blamed them for allowing Americans “to die in Benghazi” and for permitting “the rise of ISIS” – referring to the 2012 attacks on the American mission in Libya and the spread of the Islamic State, both of which occurred during the Obama administration. At the time, most of Mr. Trump’s Republican foreign policy critics were in think tanks, private consultancies or law firms, or signed on as advisers to the Republican hopefuls Mr. Trump beat in the primaries.

Yeah, he got that wrong too, and these were big guns:

Among the most prominent signatories are Michael V. Hayden, a former director of both the CIA and the National Security Agency; John D. Negroponte, who served as the first director of national intelligence and then deputy secretary of state; and Robert B. Zoellick, another former deputy secretary of state, United States trade representative and, until 2012, president of the World Bank. Two former secretaries of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, also signed, as did Eric S. Edelman, who was Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security adviser and as a top aide to Robert M. Gates when he was secretary of defense.

Donald Trump was having a bad day:

The letter underscores the continuing rupture in the Republican Party, but particularly within its national security establishment. Many of those signing it had declined to add their names to the letter released in March. But a number said in recent interviews that they changed their minds once they heard Mr. Trump invite Russia to hack Mrs. Clinton’s email server – a sarcastic remark, he said later – and say that he would check to see how much NATO members contributed to the alliance before sending forces to help stave off a Russian attack. They viewed Mr. Trump’s comments on NATO as an abandonment of America’s most significant alliance relationship.

And this doesn’t bode well:

The sharp split in the Republican Party raises the question of whom Mr. Trump will turn to for institutional memory if he is elected. The officials he denounced made plenty of mistakes, some of which they acknowledge and some they gloss over. But they are also the party’s repository of experience of economic, diplomatic and military strategies, both successful and failed. Mr. Trump’s own bench of foreign policy advisers has had comparatively little experience.

And there’s no conspiracy here:

The Clinton campaign appeared to be aware that the letter was circulating and encouraged it, but played no role in drafting it, several signatories said. Yet perhaps most striking about the letter is the degree to which it echoes Mrs. Clinton’s main argument about her rival: that his temperament makes him unsuitable for the job, and that he should not be entrusted with the control of nuclear weapons.

“He is unable or unwilling to separate truth from falsehood,” the letter says. “He does not encourage conflicting views. He lacks self-control and acts impetuously. He cannot tolerate personal criticism. He has alarmed our closest allies with his erratic behavior. All of these are dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be president and commander in chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”

That seemed to unhinge Trump a bit:

Mr. Trump responded in his statement that his vision was “one that is not run by a ruling family dynasty. It’s an America first vision that stands up to foreign dictators instead of taking money from them, seeks peace over war, rebuilds our military and makes other countries pay their fair share for their protection.”

He was proving their point, and Zack Beauchamp sees where this is heading:

While you’ve seen mass defections among conservative-leaning think tankers, pundits, and experts, the leading officials in the GOP are either supporting Trump (Paul Ryan, Reince Priebus) or refusing to publicly condemn him (George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush). Ted Cruz is perhaps the biggest exception, and his favorability among Republicans has collapsed as a result.

This is a big reason Trump can maintain his hold on the GOP. Most Republican voters have no idea who the signatories to this letter are. They command a handful of votes combined, made up mostly of their friends and family. The people who really matter, the top level officials with big public profiles and deep fundraising networks, have refused to mount a serious effort to distance the party from Trump.

At the same time, though, letters like this might actually matter.

Trump is in desperate need of serious policy advisers. His foreign policy team is full of marginalized Russian sycophants. His economic advisory team has more white guys named Steve than it does actual holders of economics PhDs. Yet Trump’s bizarre policy instincts and his loose-cannon approach have alienated the people who could make up a more serious team – the kind of people who signed today’s letter.

This is part of why every Trump attempt to reboot and talk seriously about policy is riddled with errors and unnecessary controversy. Not only does Trump himself have an indifferent relationship with the truth, but the people attempting to guide him toward it tend to be the GOP’s third-stringers.

Beauchamp thinks that all of this compounds after a time:

Trump’s current poll numbers are abysmal – a new poll has him down seven points in Georgia, a state Democrats haven’t won in a quarter century.

After a disastrous week defined by him feuding with Gold Star parents, there’s real risk of a Trump death spiral kicking in. If it looks like he can’t win, then donors might stop donating, top staff members might start applying for jobs on down-ticket races, and current Republicans running for reelection might jump ship on endorsing him. This would likely depress his poll numbers further, leading to more abandonment. It’s a cycle of doom.

This letter, an unprecedented statement of opposition inside his own party, is the kind of thing that could help strengthen the perception of a collapsing Trump. At another time, this letter wouldn’t matter even a little – a similar letter by foreign policy hands during the primary had no appreciable effect. But Trump is uniquely vulnerable right now, particularly among GOP elites. This letter could end up hurting Trump more than it seems.

A death spiral, a cycle of doom – could that be true? Donald Trump can do no harm to his campaign no matter how hard he tries – he has said he could shoot someone dead in the middle of Fifth Avenue and his poll numbers would go up, again – but perhaps things are changing:

Sen. Susan Collins joined the growing list of Republicans who say they aren’t supporting Donald Trump in the general election.

“Donald Trump does not reflect historical Republican values nor the inclusive approach to governing that is critical to healing the divisions in our country,” she wrote in a piece for The Washington Post.

The senior senator from Maine lists three major incidents as explanations for why she can’t support Trump: She cited Trump mocking a reporter with disabilities, his comments that an Indiana-born judge of Mexican heritage is biased against him and his attacks against the parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention, as reasons she will buck her party’s nominee.

“My conclusion about Mr. Trump’s unsuitability for office is based on his disregard for the precept of treating others with respect, an idea that should transcend politics. Instead, he opts to mock the vulnerable and inflame prejudices by attacking ethnic and religious minorities,” she wrote.

And there was that letter from the Grumpy Fifty:

She expressed concern about Trump’s potential effect on American foreign policy, saying, “His lack of self-restraint and his barrage of ill-informed comments would make an already perilous world even more so.”

As Bernie Sanders likes to say, enough is enough:

Collins wrote that she hoped the Republican nominee would “tone down his rhetoric” for the general election and apologize for past oversteps, but said: “The unpleasant reality that I have had to accept is that there will be no ‘new’ Donald Trump, just the same candidate who will slash and burn and trample anything and anyone he perceives as being in his way or an easy scapegoat.”

She also said she will not support Hillary Clinton.

Collins joins Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Reps. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, Richard Hanna of New York and Scott Rigell of Virginia as Republican members of Congress who aren’t backing Trump.

Now add this:

For the first time since 1940, the Tulsa World declines to endorse the Republican nominee for President: “From Day One, the Trump campaign has brought out the worst of America, not the greatness that he promises.”

And add this:

Wadi Gaitan became the Florida GOP’s top spokesman one month before Donald Trump entered the Republican primary race.

Just over a year later, Gaitan confirmed Monday that he’s leaving the party to avoid helping the Republican nominee’s campaign any further.

“I’m thankful for my almost two years with the Florida GOP, however, moving on gives me a great, new opportunity to continue promoting free market solutions while avoiding efforts that support Donald Trump,” Gaitan said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.

Gaitan declined to comment further, but those closest to the conservative, who is of Honduran descent, said he couldn’t stand by Trump’s repeated attacks on the Hispanic community.

And add this:

Former Michigan Gov. William Milliken (R) has announced that he will vote for Hillary Clinton for president, saying that Donald Trump does not embody Republican ideals.

“This nation has long prided itself on its abiding commitments to tolerance, civility and equality. We face a critically important choice in this year’s presidential election that will define whether we maintain our commitment to those ideals or embark on a path that has doomed other governments and nations throughout history,” he said in a statement to the Detroit Free Press published Monday. “I am saddened and dismayed that the Republican Party this year has nominated a candidate who has repeatedly demonstrated that he does not embrace those ideals.”

And Slate’s Michelle Goldberg reports this:

According to Politico, more GOP defectors are set to go public this week, and the Clinton campaign will soon roll out an official Republicans for Clinton organization to mobilize them.

Crucial to this mini-movement are Republican women. In this election, much has been said about the surge of blue-collar men towards Donald Trump. At least as significant, however, has been the rush of white-collar women away from him. According to a new Monmouth University poll, college-educated white women prefer Clinton to Trump by 30 percentage points, 57 percent to 27 percent. (In 2012, Mitt Romney won this demographic by 6 percentage points, 52 percent to 46 percent.) “I think much of that is Republican women-voters who simply can’t vote for someone so vile towards women as Donald Trump,” says Meghan Milloy, an employee at a right-leaning think tank who also serves as chairwoman of the group Republican Women for Hillary.

In the past week, four high-profile Republican women have come out in favor of Clinton: longtime Jeb Bush adviser Sally Bradshaw, former Chris Christie aide Maria Comella, Hewlett Packard executive Meg Whitman, and former George W. Bush aide Lezlee Westine. None of these women, by themselves, is likely to sway many votes: But they represent a broader distaff repudiation of Trump, who continues to lead with men. “Most Republican women will vote for Trump, because I think most Republicans will vote for Trump,” says Katie Packer, Mitt Romney’s 2012 deputy campaign manager. “Partisan Republican women tend to act more like partisans than they do like women. But I don’t think he will win Republican women with the numbers that Bush, McCain, and Romney did, and that’s where these elections are won and lost: on the margins.”

Someone has had enough of this nonsense:

In 2013, the Republican Party released a report about its 2012 failure; it was called the “Growth & Opportunity Project” but colloquially known as the “Republican Autopsy.” (Sally Bradshaw was one of its authors.) Women, it said, “represent more than half the voting population in the country and our inability to win their votes is losing us elections.” Republicans “need to make a better effort at listening to female voters, directing their policy proposals at what they learn from women, and communicating that they understand what a woman who is balancing many responsibilities is going through.” Trump has not made good on this strategy, such as it is. After November, some say, it will be time for another reckoning.

“He has said some pretty horrific things about women, and most of our party leadership has embraced him and accepted him,” Packer says. “They’re going to have to answer for that. There’s going to have to be a denunciation of this guy.”

Donald Trump was going to be a good boy, and he tried – he really tried – but it seems it was already too late for that. And that means it was also too late for the party, which finally told him to be a good boy long after they nominated the bad boy, because he was a bad boy. They can now sigh about what might have been – winning back the presidency, holding onto control of the Senate, not having to worry about holding onto the House at all – but some things were not meant to be. And he coulda been a contender!

Everyone knows that line. The character Marlon Brando was playing in that movie was kidding himself too – “You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

Oh well.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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