They’re only polls and we all should remember how badly most polls blew their calls in the last presidential election. But two new surveys from the Washington Post and ABC News on the one hand, and the Wall Street Journal and NBC News on the other, are signaling to me anyway that Donald Trump has made a major mistake so far in his young presidency in tilting so markedly toward the keepers of the orthodoxy (especially the most doctrinaire versions) in his own party. Instead, he should have been focusing all along on developing a promising new American political center of gravity that he started defining (in his own imitable way) during his campaign.
As widely observed during the 2016 elections, Mr. Trump was anything but a conventional conservative – at least as the term has been understood for the last quarter century. Yes, he made frequent nods toward cutting taxes and regulations, as well as to balancing budgets (objectives that of course aren’t always consistent). He also expressed some support for social conservative positions like further restricting abortion and appointing “strict constructionists” to the Supreme Court. But as also widely observed, if that mix of views was what voters in the Republican primaries and general elections really wanted, they would have voted for an orthodox conservative.
Instead, Mr. Trump trounced his opponents even though he at least as often promised to protect massive federal entitlement programs heavily relied on by the middle class and senior citizens; to guarantee adequate healthcare for non-seniors who can’t afford it; to preserve government support for Planned Parenthood’s provision of non-abortion-related women’s health services; to uphold the rights of gay, lesbian, and transgender Americans; and of course to ignore free market dictates when they seemed to undermine public safety and prosperity by fostering unrestricted trade and immigration.
Undoubtedly, much of candidate Trump’s appeal also sprang from simple, nonpartisan voter anger at the failures and self-serving priorities of the bipartisan national political establishment. But Mr. Trump did the best job of all last year’s presidential hopefuls of identifying the combination of specific grievances that created this anger: notably, over those jobs and incomes lost to Americans Last trade and immigration policies, over those related dangers posed by terrorism and leaky borders, and over the astronomical costs and risks of fighting seemingly futile foreign wars and defending free-riding allies.
The president’s Inaugural Address – which declared his intention to fix these problems with America- and Americans’- First policies – unabashedly proclaimed that President Trump would govern like candidate Trump.
Yet although the president has by and large kept his immigration promises, and approved some (limited) measures to combat foreign trade predation, his domestic policy proposals look like they’re right out of the Chamber of Commerce and Moral Majority playbooks. Nowhere has this development been more obvious than in his endorsement of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s healthcare plan, and in his release of a budget outline that, outside of defense spending, libertarians should be swooning over.
Late last month, I ventured that the president’s support for the “Ryan Care” proposal was a head fake: He had knowingly backed a measure so draconian that he knew it would fail, in order to establish some orthodox conservative street cred with Congressional Republicans and thus enlist their support for the pivot to greater moderation he had planned all along. Something like this scenario could still unfold; according to press reports, even the hard-core anti-government House Freedom Caucus members are growing more amenable to a compromise proposal that would preserve many of the more popular provisions of President Obama’s healthcare reforms.
But Mr. Trump’s continuing insistence on a federal spending blueprint that either eliminates or greatly slashes funding for medical and other scientific research, Chesapeake Bay cleanup, and food and heating aid for the poor, is not only plain bizarre, especially since the dollars involved are trivially small. It’s also politically inexplicable, because there’s absolutely no evidence that these are viewed as priority savings among any important Trump constituencies.
And that’s where the new polls come in. As per the headline results, Mr. Trump’s popularity at this point in his presidency is much lower than the ratings of most of his predecessors early in their first terms. In fairness, the Post-ABC survey also shows that the president would beat his chief 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, in the popular vote if a new election was held – showing that he’s even more popular versus the Democratic nominee than on election day.
But the both polls showed the president’s support tightly concentrated among his own core voters and Republicans generally. Even accepting the claim that rapid partisanship by Democratic party leaders is proving effective in limiting Mr. Trump’s appeal to their rank and file, it’s still a sign of trouble for the president that his ratings among self-described political independents is markedly on the wane according to the Journal-NBC findings (falling to 30 percent) and low (38 percent) according to the Post-ABC survey.
One main reason: The Washington Republicans President Trump is apparently still courting are even less popular than he is. The Journal-NBC poll reports that many more Americans are dissatisfied with the Republican-led Congress nowadays than in February, and Ryan’s approval ratings are even lower. Moreover, the Republican-led Congress and the Speaker, in turn, are less popular than the president even among voters identifying as Republicans.
None of these results necessarily bodes ill for the Freedom Caucus. Its members don’t care for Ryan, either – allegedly for being too moderate. But many of the latest measures of Americans’ views of major policy issues do. For example, the Journal-NBC poll found that, since February, the share of respondents agreeing that “Government should do more to solve problems and help meet people’s needs” shot up to 57 percent. Even more independents (59 percent) endorsed this position. The share of total respondents believing that “Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals plummeted to 39 percent.
More pointedly, the Post-ABC poll showed Americans opposing the Trump budget proposals by 50 percent to 37 percent overall, and independents disapproving by an even wider 52 percent to 35 percent margin.
The Journal-NBC survey also found record shares of Americans viewing “free trade” and “immigration” positively – at 57 percent and 60 percent, respectively. But the abstract nature of these questions could well have tilted these answers. One reason for supposing so: The Post-ABC poll reporting that, by a strong 73 percent to 22 percent, Americans favor “Trump pressuring companies to keep jobs in the United States.” Among independents, the results are an even better 75 percent to 19 percent.
So the recipe for Trump political success seems pretty clear: Dump the Freedom Caucus under the Trump Train on the budget and healthcare; preserve (and even boost to some extent) discretionary spending programs that strengthen the economy’s foundations and provide for the needy; keep the campaign promises on entitlements so highly prized by the middle class; and take bolder measures to Buy American and Hire American (as one new set of trade-related Trump jobs programs is called).
Keeping the focus on these priorities, along with a well thought out infrastructure program, should attract and keep enough backing among Republicans and independents to offset any losses in Freedom Caucus ranks, both in Congress and at the grassroots level (where they seem modest in number). Adding new policies to combat predatory foreign trade practices, moreover, should please organized labor enough to bring into the fold many union members and leaders plus the Congressional Democrats they strongly influence. An extra bonus – this program could well give President Trump the political leeway he needs to stay his course on immigration (which of course has seen a softening of his views on the so-called Dreamers).
Often in American history, calls to “Let [name your favorite politician] be [name that same politician]” have reflected core supporters’ naive beliefs that campaign promises can easily be turned into policy by the office-seekers they elect. But as is so often the case with the current president, Letting Trump be Trump, could confound the political conventional wisdom.