My colleague John McCormick dives into the latest Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll today to examine the reason for Donald Trump’s powerful appeal: he’s been able “to sell himself as the straight-talker most candidates aspire to be,” which has landed him squarely in first place.
This is an important insight that I’d carry further, because I think it explains why standard-issue Republican candidates such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who have tried to emulate Trump, typically fail and will always fail. Calling someone a “straight talker” is code for saying they’re authentic. Trump’s authenticity, and hence his appeal, stems from his willingness to criticize his own party's priorities (tax and entitlement cuts), not just Democrats', whereas most pols like Walker who style themselves straight talkers tend to limit their “straight talk” to criticizing the other party's agenda and wilt when presented with a chance to critique their own side. Voters pick up on this and respond accordingly.
Over at the Washington Post, Greg Sargent seizes on a great example of Walker totally dodging an invitation to deliver some straight talk, when CNBC’s John Harwood asks him about the upward redistributionary effects of his health-care plan. The Trump answer would be something like: “You’re darn right, my plan takes money from the moochers and losers and returns it to the rich.” But Walker mainly dissembles:
HARWOOD: Obamacare redistributed money from high income taxpayers, from healthy people, from younger people, to people who had less money, who were older and sicker. Your repeal would redistribute that money in the other direction. Given the trends of income disparity in the country, why is this the right time for that kind of redistribution?
WALKER: Our system’s purely about freedom. It’s about giving people the freedom. The tax credit goes up by age, not by income. It goes up by age because the credit should be connected to what it actually costs people to get health insurance. It’s not about a redistribution of wealth issue.
We allow people to buy into whatever—give ’em the freedom. We give patients as consumers the freedom to choose where they want to go or—frankly, part of our plan says if you want to pool together your resources as consumers, and pick your own plan, you can do that on your own. You have the freedom to take this tax credit, to take your money and pick where you want to go—or if you want to have health care at all. We don’t have a mandate. We wiped the mandate out. We say you can control your own money, with money for a health savings account. Whether you have your own health care plan through your employer or you buy one individually, it’s all about freedom.
Walker’s answer is pure, uncut establishment-Republican orthodoxy, the kind of thinking you’d find on the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page. It’s the opposite of Trumpism. The fact is, true straight talk—that is, straight talk delivered at both parties—is exceeding difficult for career politicians like Walker to pull off, because it upsets the patrons and supporters they depend on for their livelihood (this is another Trump straight-talk point). I can think of only one example: “Maverick”-era (2000) John McCain. And McCain's example actually illustrates the difficulty of a politican pulling off true straight talk. In his battle against George W. Bush for the Republican nomination, McCain ultimately shrank from criticizing the Confederate Flag (which he opposed), which shattered his straight-talking image. In fact, this sent McCain hurtling it the other direction to become the docrinaire Republican who was the party's nominee in 2008.