After making a big splash at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington this month, Donald Trump was asked if he is considering a run for the presidency.
“I’m incredibly tempted,” he responded.
If Trump gives in to temptation, his past actions and positions may collectively provide the biggest handicap for a major candidate in the history of presidential politics.
If he decides to run, Trump also will carry with him a host of significant advantages. It would be wrong to dismiss him out of hand as many political insiders have.
First of all, he is one of the most recognized men in America, with the kind of instant and singular name recognition shared by a very few.
Second, his public image is already well developed and reasonably presidential, especially if one bases the judgment solely on his professional life. He is a successful businessman who has a magnetic leadership quality that has proven itself in the Nielsen ratings.
Third, given his fortune, he can outspend the competition from Day One and has already signaled that he would be willing to spend “hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Finally, Trump could just be the right person at the right time. Americans have signaled that they are fed up with politics as usual and that they hunger for an outsider to restore reason. They might respond favorably to a candidate that argues, as Trump has, that “I am not a political pro trying to top off his resume.”
All of these advantages might add up to a potent candidacy were Trump to run as an independent, as he considered doing in 1999 when, at one point, he polled ahead of Democratic frontrunner Al Gore.
Perhaps recognizing that an independent has little chance in our two-party system, Trump now is a registered Republican and would likely seek that nomination were he to run. That is where the problem lies.
To be sure, Trump looked like a solid Republican presidential candidate at the CPAC meeting and on subsequent television appearances last week. He asserted, for example, in an interview with Fox News host Greta Van Susteren that, “I’m probably as conservative as anybody on your show, and that’s going a pretty strong step. I’m Republican, a very conservative Republican. I believe strongly in just about all conservative principles, just about.”
That statement might be true today, but Trump’s problem is that it is wildly at odds with his history.
This is a man who was a registered Republican from 1987 to 1999, then switched to the Independence Party in October 1999. In August 2001, he became a Democrat and flipped back to Republican in 2009.
While such peregrinations can sometimes be characterized as a philosophical journey, Trump would have trouble making that case. He was hardly a reluctant Democrat.
“I probably identify more as a Democrat,” Trump told Cable News Network’s Wolf Blitzer in 2004. “It just seems that the economy does better under the Democrats than the Republicans.”
He has also backed this up with hard cash, providing a steady source of contributions to Democratic candidates, even recently. Trump has given money to Hillary Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, Charles Rangel and Arlen Specter, and tossed $50,000 toward Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to aid his current quest to become Chicago’s next mayor.
In the past, when asked about a possible cabinet were he to be elected president, he listed favorably such committed liberals as Rangel and Oprah Winfrey.
Imagine what his opponents might do with this in a Republican primary.
And his problems don’t stop with old campaign donations. When Trump was considering a candidacy in 1999, he staked out positions that were deeply at odds with his current stances. Other Republican candidates, notably former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, have similar problems, but Trump takes it to a whole new level.
In 1999, he told Tim Russert on “Meet the Press,” “I am pro-choice in every respect.” Last week he said to Van Susteren, “I’m pro-life. I think that’s a big social issue.”
On health care, the old Trump said, “Our people are our greatest asset. We must take care of our own. We must have universal health care.” Today he promises to end the new health-care law, and has added that, “I do not think it’s constitutional.”
On tax policy, he once called for a one-time levy of 14.25 percent on fortunes of more than $10 million. This government seizure of private property seems too radical even for a Democratic candidate. A wealth tax would give any card-carrying conservative a heart attack. And it is a misguided policy. After all, who would possibly trust the government not to try the wealth tax trick again at some point down the road? The capital flight from the U.S. would be astonishing.
He appears to still have a tin ear on tax policy, calling now for a 25 percent tax on all imports from China, a measure that would be terrifyingly similar to the Smoot-Hawley tariffs that set off a trade war in 1930, and helped turn the stock market crash of 1929 into the Great Depression.
Trump has an impressive history of achieving the seemingly impossible. As he considers a presidential run, he should weigh whether he can do it again, this time by persuading conservatives to ignore his past.
(Kevin Hassett, director of economic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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