There’s been some buzz in connection with Hillary Clinton’s big speech tomorrow on foreign policy that she may aim her pitch at “responsible Republicans” who fear entrusting Donald Trump with the nuclear codes, much less putative “leadership of the free world.” But there’s a problem with the usual centrist strategy in this particular year, as I discussed today at New York:
The rapid and overwhelming consolidation of the Republican rank and file behind Trump is the first big story of the general-election campaign to come, and the most obvious reason for his suddenly strong standing against Clinton in early general-election trial heats. Unlike other “noises” from such polls, this isn’t a finding anyone should necessarily dismiss as “too early.” After all, self-identified Republicans are the voters most likely to have paid close attention to Trump and what he does and does not stand for during the primary season. Yet for all the high-profile (if quickly shrinking) elite Republican resistance to Trump, actual voters seem to be emphatically over all that.
The degree of rank-and-file consolidation behind Trump was nicely dramatized today by Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight, who compares Trump’s level of support (excluding third-party candidates) among self-identified Republicans to that of other non-incumbent GOP candidates a month after they secured the nomination. Trump’s at 85-7 against Hillary Clinton. That’s slightly better than George W. Bush in 2000 (83-7), and significantly better than Poppy Bush in 1988 (81-13) or Bob Dole in 1996 (79-18). But here’s the shocker: Trump’s doing better initially among Republicans than St. Ronald Reagan in 1980 (74-14)! The only nominee with higher early GOP support than Trump is Mitt Romney (87-6), who also benefited from the hyperpolarized atmosphere of the Obama presidency.
The general consensus of analysts is that Hillary Clinton has lost her polling lead over Trump because he’s already unified the GOP, while she’s still struggling to put out the Bern. If so, does it make a lot of sense for her to devote a major speech to exploiting a rift in the Republican ranks that no longer exists? I don’t think this strategy is terribly consistent with what she needs to do to unify her own party, particularly Sanders supporters who are not comfortable standing on the common ground Clinton shares with “responsible Republicans” (which once included, lest we forget, support for the Iraq War).
Maybe the Clinton campaign has unpublished evidence that she can reopen the divisions of the competitive Republican primaries via her own efforts. If not, she might want to avoid any conspicuous “move to the center” toward a party united in antipathy toward her and her party, particularly since any overt maneuvering could reinforce doubts about her honesty and constancy that are probably her biggest problem.
I’ll probably have my own card-carrying “centrist” credentials pulled for saying all this, but that’s how I see it at this moment. Another year might be totally different, and it’s also possible Trump will do something so egregious as to squander the rank-and-file GOP unity he currently enjoys.