Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Only Trump can go to Nixonland?

To win the Republican nomination, Nixon told Dole, "you have to run as far as you can to the right because that's where 40% of the people who decide the nomination are. And to get elected you have to run as fast as you can back to the middle, because only about 4% of the nation's voters are on the extreme right wing."
Letters From Nixon Shape Dole's Campaign Strategy
LA Times, May 07, 1995

One of the things that struck me about the past two presidential elections was how completely the Nixon pivot had been taken off of the table. Both McCain and Romney dutifully followed the first step during the primaries, but whenever they tried to move back toward the center during the general election, the reaction from the base quickly sent them scurrying back to the right.

Conventional wisdom saw this in terms of ideological extremism but my take-away was quite different.  The GOP base has grown more conservative in the 21st century, but even taking that into account, their willingness to give their nominees any slack is much less than it was at any point in the second half of the 20th Century.

My argument is that this has relatively little to do with ideology and much to do with trust. Many in the base feel (with some justification) that the social contract with the party has been violated. They are no longer willing automatically to extend credit to their party's nominees.

With Trump, however, the Nixon pivot suddenly becomes not only viable but remarkably easy. He has a great personal bond with his supporters, his appeal is not particularly ideological, and he has been able to hold heterodox positions without paying a political penalty.

A pivot to the center would not even require covering any new territory. Trump's "platform" has been so erratic and unpredictable that all he would have to do would be to embrace some of the positions he held then implicitly or explicitly abandoned over the past 12 months. It would seem unlikely that significant portion of his core supporters would abandon him if he changed his mind once again and decided he was for high taxes on rich people.

Josh Marshall (one of the few journalists who has done a good job keeping up with the story) has recently started discussing a related scenario:
For committed conservatives, there is a real and I believe justified fear that Trump could come into office, be hardcore for a year or two and then pull what Arnold Schwarzenegger did in his latter years as governor of California. In other words, shape-shift into a sort of moderate, Bloombergesque sort of Republican. Republicans can tolerate than in New York where nothing better is on offer and perhaps in California too. But not in the White House.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) is also suggesting that Trump might do something of a Nixon pivot and that it might work out well for the party.
"Ted Cruz is a rigid ideologue," Dent told the New York Times in an interview published on Tuesday. "Donald Trump is ideologically scattered and malleable. In my view, a more rigid ideology would have a much harder time assembling a winning general election coalition than the less doctrinaire candidate."

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