President Trump has had a terrible week. The polls have consistently shown him behind, not only nationwide but in the battleground states where this election will be decided. He turned in a poor performance in the worst debate in presidential history, and he’s been sidelined by testing positive for the current plague, meaning no more of the mass rallies which he loves, at least for the time being. With his campaign on the ropes, how can he turn things around? Perhaps by calling on his inner Ronald Stump, if there is one, and turning his campaign over to him.
So who is Ronald Stump anyway? In this case he’s not one of the men a Google search will produce. Rather, he’s the invention of a Washington Post columnist who described him in the single most fascinating column I’ve read in that paper over the past year. You can read it here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-without-the-trumpiness-would-win-reelection-in-a-landslide/2019/10/29/a4027112-fa72-11e9-8906-ab6b60de9124_story.html.
Ronald Stump is a hypothetical President of the United States enacting the exact same policies as the real President Trump—border wall, tax cuts, business deregulation, conservative judges, etc.—but without the tweet storms, conspiracy mongering, and other rude, obnoxious, and bizarre deviations from normal behavior. Rather, he speaks the language of civility and inclusion, practicing not the art of the deal necessarily, but the art of disagreeing while remaining agreeable and recognizing (or at least acting as if he’s recognizing) the fundamental patriotism, integrity, and good will of his opponents. Given the state of the economy at the time the article was written, the broad base of support for his policies, and his conventionally attractive (or at least inoffensive) personality, Ronald Stump would have been the odds-on favorite to win re-election, possibly in a landslide.
Not discussed in the article, because nobody could have foreseen it at the time, was how Ronald Stump might successfully handle a pandemic which has caused widespread illness, 200,000 deaths (and counting), and massive unemployment. But normally the onset of a crisis inspires the public to support the president, and successfully handling it with honesty and initiative strengthens that support. A President Stump, by talking straight, taking science-based initiatives, and playing fair with the American people, might have been able to survive the political fallout of our current crises. After all, while FDR’s New Deal failed to end the double-digit unemployment that plagued his first 8 years in office, he nonetheless twice won re-election during the Great Depression. The voters were willing to reward him for his courage and candor in addressing the economic crisis, even if his job creation programs failed to reduce unemployment as much as he or the public wanted. He got A’s for effort.
But President Trump’s approval ratings have remained stubbornly below 50% throughout his term, apparently because enough voters, whatever they think of his policies, dislike his style enough to withhold their approval of his work. And last week’s debate has almost certainly depressed his ratings even more. Studies of the impact of presidential debates show that they rarely effect public opinion to any significant degree. Most voters are already committed to their respective parties’ nominees and will approve of their performance no matter who says what. At most, undecided voters may shift the needle a couple of points one way or the other.
But while the impact the impact of debates on election outcomes is usually insignificant, there can be exceptions. In very close elections, the shift of a percentage point or two could affect the outcome of an election. Kennedy’s cool demeanor in his first debate with Nixon and Gore’s rudeness during his debates with Bush may have shifted the needle among a large enough percentage of voters to influence the outcome in the extraordinarily close elections of 1960 and 2000.
So what should President Trump do? He may think he need do nothing—that there’s nothing wrong with his behavior. After all, he won the 2016 election with a similar behavior pattern, so why change what’s worked in the past.
But in 2016 he had an opponent more widely disliked than Biden, and he had no record to defend. Now he has a more likeable opponent, a record for which he has to answer, and polling indicating that his behavior is preventing him from winning the support necessary to win this time around. Under the circumstances, the best thing to do is to take the time he must spend off the campaign trail and search for his inner Ronald Stump. We’ll know he’s succeeded if, when he resumes campaigning, he:
- Ceases attacking Biden for being too old and feeble-minded for the presidency (after all, each time he speaks, Biden need only string together a few coherent sentences to put the lie to Trump’s charge);
- Offers a vigorous fact-based defense of his own policies, emphasizing, of course, what voters like best about his administration—his handling of the economy;
- Offers a fact-based critique of Biden’s policies, emphasizing the degree to which they’ll require higher taxes and more government regulation without falsely claiming they’re socialistic or as radical as those proposed by Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Primary; and, above all
- Comport himself with the dignity associated with his office, a task best accomplished by respecting the dignity of his critics and opponents, whatever he thinks of them personally.
Can Donald Trump really do this? And will this be enough to win him another term in the White House? We won’t know until the election is over. It may be too much to expect any behavioral changes, and too late to expect success for him even with the best of efforts. But should he try, he will make his country, his followers, and himself morally and intellectually better for the attempt. And besides, with time growing short and victory becoming more elusive, he really has nothing to lose by trying.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.