"You know how to whistle, don't you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow." -- Lauren Bacall to Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not
Donald Trump doesn't know how to whistle.
He's in distinguished company, though. Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, occasionally George W. Bush and a considerable list of others had the same problem.
Ronald Reagan? Now there was a man who knew how to whistle.
First, The Donald.
The other night, Trump said thus of President Obama to Sean Hannity on Hannity's Fox TV show:
"And look, he's been a horrible president. I always said the worst president was Jimmy Carter. Guess what? Jimmy Carter goes to second place. Barack Obama has been the worst president ever in the history of this country -- Barack Obama is number one."
Well, actually, Trump has not always said he thought Jimmy Carter was the worst president.
As they say, "let's go to the videotape." Here it is, The Donald on local channel New York 1, shortly after the 2008 election.
For those who prefer print, here's the quote:
"McCain, really, that was almost an impossible situation. Bush has been so bad, maybe the worst president in the history of this country. He has been so incompetent, so bad, so evil that I don't think any Republican could have won."
Then Trump compared Bush -- unfavorably -- to Obama:
"I think he has a chance to go down as a great president. Now, if he's not a great president, this country is in serious trouble. I think [Obama's] going to lead through consensus. It's not going to be just a bull run like Bush did. He just did whatever the hell he wanted. He'd go into a country, attack Iraq, which had nothing to do with the World Trade Center and just do it because he wanted to do it."
George W. Bush evil? The worst president in history? Incompetent? Obama a potentially great president? After the record Obama exhibited as community organizer, his associations with Weatherman Bill Ayres and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright? After being named by the National Journal as the most liberal U.S. Senator in the entire Senate -- Trump thinks this rampant left-wingism would have zero effect on an Obama presidency? That Obama or for that matter anyone could possibly -- ever -- be a "great president" following those principles? Really? And he was a McCain fan? Senator McCain-Feingold who sided with Ted Kennedy on illegal immigration? That John McCain of 2008?
Wow. And that's after he praised Nancy Pelosi as "the best."
Is Donald Trump thinking of running for the Republican presidential nomination? Of actually appealing for votes from conservatives? Or does MoveOn.org have a primary Republican and conservative voters in Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina don't yet know about? Well, he must have had a change of heart and forgot about the New York 1 interview when he was talking to Hannity. (Not to mention his praise for Pelosi). Suddenly, the worst president is no longer George Bush its Barack Obama, who replaced the man Trump insisted he used to think of as the worst president -- Carter. Where does this put Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan?
Donald Trump is a smart guy. A very smart guy, and a considerably accomplished man who deserves every bit of the applause he gets for his accomplishments and countless contributions of all kinds to the New York and larger American economy, not to mention equally uncountable acts of charity. That's before you get to the sheer entertainment value he adds to life. He is not only roguishly likeable but admirable. His latest -- "Mine's bigger than Mitt's" (that would be fortune, of course) is hilarious.
But the question at issue with Trump is in fact exactly the same as it is with Romney. Can Donald Trump -- should Donald Trump -- be nominated for President of the United States? By Republicans and conservatives? As his previous videotaped thoughts on "worst presidents" surface -- Bush yesterday…or is it Carter…no, wait, its Obama -- well, his prospective opponents are surely licking their chops. More to the point….both Trump and Romney (and others) can give conservatives uncomfortable flashbacks to GOP presidents gone by.
Which brings us back to the political version of that provocative, immortalized-on-film question of Bacall's to Bogart: does Donald Trump know how to whistle….to conservatives?
As mentioned, he's not alone in seeming not to understand how to do this.
Since conservatism came into its own in modern times as a fully articulated political and governing philosophy, fleshed out over the centuries from Burke to Lincoln to Buckley, Goldwater and Reagan, the Republican Party has found itself in the hands of presidents and presidential nominees (and senators, governors, mayors and more) who were, politely put, clueless on the importance of all this. These were good people (think Ford or Dole), outright heroes in some cases (think Bush 41, Dole and McCain). But at times -- and President Bush 43 is certainly in this mix -- they were either philosophically unanchored or just had the old statist addiction for growing government (No Child left Behind, Medicare prescription drugs) -- and hence adding to that statist-induced $14.2 trillion deficit of today.
At this point in history, America cannot afford to have the 2012 election be about Barack Obama and the Republican nominee/prospective nominee of the moment whether it's Donald Trump or anybody else. This election is -- must be -- a verdict on the ideas and performance of the American Left. And a triumph for the vital necessity of a conservative government. And it is the Left that has failed miserably here -- Barack Obama being but the latest carrier and implementer of the deal.
Donald Trump, the man who wrote The Art of the Deal, should, of all people, get that. What troubles is that it is precisely the sentiments Trump captured in that book -- what Trump refers to as his ability at "juggling provisional commitments," which Publishers Weekly described as commitments "for land or lease options, bank financing, zoning approval, tax abatement, etc.," and "most crucial of all, a true trader's instinct" -- that should give conservatives considerable pause. Stripped to its essence, this is just the business version of, say, Bob Dole. Tactical conservatism. Conservative principles are provisional, something to be juggled -- horse-traded on the Senate floor as Dole traded them or traded inside the White House, as a President Trump might trade them. Or did trade them in his verbal hug for the left-wing Speaker Pelosi. This is exactly what comes across as Trump hesitates on Paul Ryan's budget.
How has this kind of thing shown up in the past? Here's a short list of how not to whistle to conservatives.
• Ford -- It's hard to know where to start in an administration that put Nelson Rockefeller in the vice-presidency and replaced him with Bob Dole. But one incident, small though it was, tells the tale precisely. In 1975, President Ford learned Soviet dissident and author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wished to see him during a Washington visit. Ford, quickly consulting every moderate Republican foreign policy expert of the day, concluded this would be, in his words, "unwise." Why? It would upset Soviet Chairman Leonid Brezhnev, from whom Ford wanted a SALT II deal. Ford was scheduled to meet Brezhnev in Helsinki to try and get this done. So -- too bad for Solzhenitsyn. The news got out. Solzhenitsyn, who believed Ford's policy of accommodation towards the Communists was totally wrong, believed correctly that he was being snubbed. Once Ford saw this in the press, Ford wrote later, he realized "the damage my 'snub' was causing me among conservatives." So, of course, he tried to make amends by agreeing to a meeting after he saw Brezhnev and got his SALT deal. Too late. Not long after, Ronald Reagan launched his famous challenge. Four years later Reagan famously began his presidency with a press conference bluntly saying the Soviets lied and cheated and all the rest, the decidedly non-Fordian "Evil Empire" around the corner. As noted, Reagan knew how to whistle.
• Bush 41 -- Famously, of course, there was President Bush 41's "read my lips, no new taxes pledge" in 1990. It was bad enough that Bush broke the pledge. But the problem was compounded in multiples when the President and his staff tried to go after dissenting Republicans on grounds of personal loyalty to the President, seemingly oblivious to the idea that a central economic principle of conservatives had just been dispatched as part of "the art of the deal" philosophy in dealing with Capitol Hill Democrats. All hell broke loose in GOP and conservative circles. Two-years later the first Bush presidency was history.
• Dole: It is often noted that Reagan raised taxes -- the usual cite here the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act or TEFRA. Told that if he signed the bill, he would be getting three dollars of spending cuts for every one dollar of taxes, Reagan reluctantly signed on. Of course, he was taken. The cuts were never made. What frequently goes unmentioned is that this bid to lure Reagan into violating his core beliefs was pushed from the get-go by then Senate Finance Chairman Bob Dole. It was but one of a career's worth of deals that earned Dole the nickname of "tax collector for the welfare state." It illustrated Dole's inability to put his lips together and whistle properly to conservatives. No wonder Ford sought him out to replace Rockefeller in 1976.
One could go on here. Bush 43 and the Medicare prescription drug episode or "compassionate conservatism" etc. Ironically, in his own way Trump, in spite of his attacks on Bush, seems to be trying to claim the Bush "compassionate conservative" mantle as his own. Witness this exchange with Hannity:
HANNITY: You describe yourself politically as a conservative?
TRUMP: I'm a very conservative person.
HANNITY: Very conservative person, but…
TRUMP: With a big heart. I'm actually a conservative with a big heart.
Ahhhh the old qualifier game. I'm a conservative but….yada yada yada.
Since Trump has brought up the subject of Mitt Romney it is worth noting that Romney too is having the same problem as Trump in learning how to whistle to conservatives. Romney's initial problem was "Romneycare" -- his health care plan in Massachusetts. Viewed by many conservatives -- correctly -- as a forerunner of Obamacare, Romney has tried to untangle himself. And is doing a terrible job at it.
Instead of simply saying some version of "what was I thinking?" or "I was wrong," Romney has launched on an elaborate mission to persuade that he was right for Massachusetts on health care but Obamacare is wrong for the nation. Read carefully this exchange on Romney's health care problem from Chris Wallace's Fox News Sunday with ex-Romney adviser Kevin Madden. The relevant words are in bold print.
WALLACE: Let me just interrupt. When you say he (Romney) is going to confront it -- because, before, he said some things worked, some things didn't, or this was a state experiment, it wasn't a federal plan -- the principle, which is, I think, what most people that are concerned about and are concerned about, is that he supported an individual mandate.
Is he going to sit there and say, I defend the principle of an individual mandate?
MADDEN: I think the question has to be, do you defend it -- how is it that you decided to drive costs and get more -- and provide more access in your particular state? So, an individual mandate was the best way to reach that with a unique health care population in Massachusetts, a unique health care population of seven million. But the mistake, and where the Obama plan went wrong, was that it tried to apply a federal standard with an individual mandate to over 300 million. And I think that's an important distinction.
Now, there are a lot of people that will say, well, that's not going to sell with many voters, but it's important because it's true. I think, then, you have to move on to health care debate, which is, where are we going in the future? How are we going to drive down cost? How are we going to get greater access going forward? Clearly, Obamacare is not going to drive down costs. It's shown that it's been a great expansion of government power, and what we're seeing is, because of the taxes and regulations, we are seeing higher prices. So that's going to be where the debate focuses -- where do we go in future?
Wow again. Madden is repeating the Romney mantra here. Tone deaf to what this signals to conservatives. What it says is that on a core conservative belief -- that a "mandate" on health is a decidedly statist view if ever there was one -- Romney still thinks this was no big deal because hey, it was only Massachusetts. Madden, a prospective presidential adviser in a Romney administration, seems not to think it a big deal either. Which means it wouldn't take long after the inauguration for open warfare to break out between the Romney White House staff and conservatives both in Washington and across the country as Romney somewhere heads off to statist-land. The Bush 41 episode all over again.
What all of this amounts to is what might be called candidates who favor "tactical conservatism." They're willing to talk the talk but they are congenitally unable to walk the walk, to put their lips together and whistle. What are these people thinking when they do these things?
They want to be liked, thought of as mainstream, reasonable or just loyal to the boss. Whatever. They are fine, sort of, with using conservatism as tactic. But conservative principle? Not on the list.
So when, for example, Trump answers a question on being a conservative from Sean Hannity, or Madden defends Romneycare's statist core -- what's really on display is the realization that conservative principle is not only not understood but feared. It is the central nerve that connects to a fear of conservatism that Reagan unhesitatingly scorned.
Which is why, when things settle in for the 2012 nomination race, Donald Trump and Mitt Romney and all the rest will be watched closely to see if they have learned how to whistle.
The fear is that they have not a clue how to do this, that they just don't have it in them. Whether it's Trump blowing off Paul Ryan's budget by chest-thumping how he supports seniors (instead of using his exquisite bluntness to say something like… "Look, the reason Ryan is on to something is because if we don't do this for seniors they will go under…and I won't stand for it. Obama is BS'ing them and I'm not afraid to say so"). Or whether it's Romney insisting that the principle of an individual mandate was just swell for Massachusetts but not the whole country.
And so on.
Since we're not in the candidate business here, how's this as a challenge for prospective GOP candidates for 2012? Rent a hall. Get the C-SPAN cameras. Then have, say, a Trump or Romney or any other candidate stand up at a podium and read -- verbatim -- Ronald Reagan's 1964 Rendezvous with Destiny speech. The speech in which Reagan lit into liberalism, insisted it would run the country's finances into the ground and more. Sure, some of the news items of the day are outdated -- but the principles shine still. It is the Gettysburg Address of conservatism.
So have The Donald, for example, look the audience in the eye. Read Reagan's speech -- word for word. Then discuss with an audience of Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina GOP voters. What did Trump get out of this? Why was this speech -- and Reagan himself -- categorized as an example of extremism in the day? How does this speech relate to Reagan's subsequent elections as Governor of California, the White House, and a stunningly successful presidency? Boring television? In Trump's hands -- are you kidding? But even if it were boring it would serve a purpose -- whistling effectively to the conservative base in an easily retrievable video fashion for an entire campaign season -- and a presidency to follow.
In the end, what was said in that long ago speech was and remains infinitely more important than Trump's headlining trashing of Bush 43 or Carter or even Obama. The question is whether anybody today ---decades from 1964 -- even has the guts to look the camera in the eye and give the speech.
Does Donald Trump know how to whistle to conservatives? Is this just about the art of the deal -- or defeating a seriously bad political philosophy that was in fact -- no accident -- a considerable part of the reason both Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama have been such disasters in the White House?
Trump once wrote a book called Think Big: Make It Happen in Business and in Life.
If one likes Donald Trump -- and I do -- it's a good book. Trumpian.
The question is, can he -- does he -- have the ability and (odd question considering this is Trump) -- the nerve to take on the American Left.
Can he (or Romney or any of the rest) Think Big in a conservative sense? Can he put his political lips together and blow?
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