Pundits chuckled when Donald Trump claimed presidential ambitions, calling him unserious. But events in 2011 dramatically reframed the picture, vaulting Trump from unlikely nominee to contender. If a dour Ross Perot won 19 percent in 1992, the supremely self-assured Trump might double it in far worse times.
When the two major parties failed to agree on a deal to raise the government's debt ceiling, frustration turned to horror as global market reaction to Uncle Sam's first-ever default sent shockwaves rippling through the financial system. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 2,000 points before trading was halted, with key individual stocks crashing more than 50 percent. Scared straight, so to speak, the two parties cobbled together a fix with cosmetic changes to assuage both parties' wings. Markets rebounded, but not to their pre-default levels, and Uncle Sam's credit reputation was permanently damaged.
Then came Donald Trump's decision to exit the Republican Party and declare that he would run as an independent candidate. Trump, who had been a member of each party, denounced them both as hopeless cases, caused by Republicans who would not raise any taxes and Democrats who would not cut any entitlement spending. It was time, he thundered, for real change. He would run as the anti-politician. (It also helped that Trump discarded his "birther" mantra.)
Freed from the problem of navigating a Byzantine path through party primaries, courting individual party regulars in caucuses and shaking hands at county fairs and subway stations in others, Trump exploited his 96 percent name recognition, which obviated the need to use the primary process to gain name identity. He spurned federal funding, stating that he would supplement Internet fund-raising with his own personal fortune. But his Internet funding proved prolific, and thus he needed little of his own personal funds. Raised from contributors, not his chums, he proudly declared he could govern without owing favors to donors.
In running as an Independent, Trump jettisoned much of the baggage he accumulated in having publicly switched positions on major issues several times. He ran as a pragmatist who, unencumbered by ideology of any stripe, could manage the government, bring true fiscal discipline and regain respect abroad.
His domestic policy was to cut entitlement spending, without which budgetary control would be impossible; shifting from defined-benefit to defined-contribution plans would restrain financial over-promising and enable workers to plan for retirement. He turned on his Wall Street friends, urging those who profited hugely while their firms imploded to give back ill-deserved gains. He promised a re-write of financial reform to reward genuine entrepreneurial capitalism instead of corporate clubhouse cronyism. Cries of hypocrisy from critics were drowned out by manifest public enthusiasm for Trump's reformist stance.
He promoted school choice and competition, excoriating President Obama for sending his kids to posh private schools while standing with the teachers' unions in opposing school choice for the poor. He promised, if elected, to name Michelle Rhee as his secretary of education. He vowed to restore full patient choice to health care, and ditch ruinously expensive Obamacare.
He would cut taxes, and ignore calls to "soak the rich" as economically counter-productive; but he made a voluntary higher personal income-tax payment as a symbolic gesture. High taxes would kill prospects for a strong recovery.
On foreign policy he vowed to select diplomats schooled in "the art of the deal" and negotiate tough deals protecting American interests. He chastised both parties for "kowtowing to China" instead of driving a tough but fair bargain. China was, he said, "getting away with financial murder" by undervaluing its currency and subsidizing cheap imports, while stealing American intellectual property.
He would control illegal immigration by a fence, if need be, but otherwise by removing the financial incentives employers have to import cheap, illegal labor. He would greatly expand H-1B immigration to allow in more skilled workers.
He promised that NATO would either pay its fair share or America would pull out -- no more would the U.S. fund operations and do all the fighting. Allies who would not fight would at least pay those that do. He would remove protection from Arab countries that continued to charge cartel prices for oil. His negotiators would not "go in the tank" on missile defense when dealing with the Russians.
He vowed to hold up U.S. payments to the UN unless it reforms. If the UN did not like this it could, Trump said, move to another country and free up valuable New York east side real estate. And there would never be, he vowed, a mosque anywhere near Ground Zero.
As the primary season opened Trump stood at 25 percent support. After a dreary primary season that produced Mitt Romney as the GOP nominee Trump stood at 35 percent, as GOP voters angry with Romneycare as well as Obamacare defected from the GOP. His campaign slogan, adapted from a similar theme from an ad used by Ed Koch in New York City's 1977 Democratic mayoral primary, was: "After eight years of the clubhouse (G. W. Bush photo) and four years of charisma (Obama photo), why not try competence (Trump photo)?"
In the summer of 2012 America, already in a double-dip recession, saw a sharp rise in unemployment. The housing market plunged again. Bankruptcies in Portugal and Spain and a surprise slowdown in China made for a weakening world economy. In September, right after the Labor Day campaign kickoff, Iran conducted an underground nuclear test. Iran's announcement triggered an instant nuclear arms race in the region, yielding a record $208 per barrel for Saudi benchmark crude. The Saudis and Pakistan made a nukes-for-petrodollars swap. Other commodity prices soared, as inflation joined recession in making for global stagflation. The Dow plunged 3,000 points and did not recover.
Confident that a nuclear Iran made its position stronger and America's weaker, Hezbollah and Hamas launched a two-front war against Israel that month. Their thousands of rockets overwhelmed Israel's nascent short-range missile defense capabilities. Israel's counter-attack brought Russian action at the UN Security Council: a resolution condemning both sides and calling for an immediate ceasefire and resumption of Arab-Israeli peace talks. President Obama supported the move, saying the violence on both sides must stop. His move won plaudits from Arab-American groups. Jewish voters, as liberals, mostly stayed with the President, but some New York Jews defected to Trump, who promised never to allow the UN to stop Israel from defending itself against aggression.
Trump won the televised debates hands down. He thundered that after 40 years of failure by both parties to lead America to energy independence it was time for real change: he would open up all energy options. He blasted both candidates for "sucking up to China while China steals our technology and jobs." Challenged about having registered for both parties over the years, Trump said he switched whenever one party acted like losers and the other like winners. Asked about how he could promote family values despite several marriages and highly public break-ups, Trump said that he had been a good father to his children.
Asked about his national security experience, Trump noted as part of running a high-profile global business he had met with far more heads of state than had candidate Barack Obama. And he pointed to his running mate, David Petraeus, who would be, said The Donald, his closest military adviser.
In October 2012 came the "October Surprise" that sealed President Obama's fate: terrorist bombs destroying Rome's massive Roma Termini train station. Sponsored by Libya's Gaddafi the atrocity killed 328 people and wounded 546, including many Americans. Petraeus said that had Gaddafi been removed by NATO action the attack would never have happened.
In the final debate one week before the election Trump had the best closing line: "Governor Romney, you're not hired and President Obama, you're fired!"
On Election Day Trump and David Petraeus carried 270 electoral votes and 38 percent of the popular vote. President Obama's numbers were 36 percent and 217. Mitt Romney won the remaining 26 percent of voters, but he carried Florida's 29, Michigan's 16, Utah's 6 and cost Obama Ohio's 18 electoral votes.
Sound improbable? Sure. And it is. But ask yourself: How likely did it seem in April 2007, two months after Barack Obama announced his candidacy, that a community organizer with a lackluster legislative career at the state and federal levels would defeat the Hillary Juggernaut?
John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a trustee of the Hudson Institute, author of The Long War Ahead and the Short War Upon Us, and founder of the issues blog Letter From the CapitolSM.