A Wisconsin Waterloo for Trump ... or the GOP?

Have the wheels come off the Donald Trump campaign in Wisconsin? Polling and a series of strange declarations by the Republican frontrunner certainly suggest that scenario, although the primary calendar could make the question moot. The Washington Post’s James Hohmann proposes that the Badger State could prove to be Trump’s Waterloo on a number of levels:

Wisconsin could be Trump’s Waterloo. Ted Cruz leads him in the Badger State by 10 points in a poll released yesterday by Marquette University law school. The survey, looking at next Tuesday’s primary, shows Cruz has gained 21 points since last month while Trump held steady. Trump gets 35 percent among men and 24 percent among Republican women. …

Another piece of oft-repeated conventional wisdom—especially by pundits on cable TV—is that nothing Trump does ever hurts him. This may be true among his core supporters, but it is not true among the electorate writ large. Every time he says something like what he said about abortion yesterday, it becomes that much harder for some voters to swallow their fears and doubts. It also less tenable for Trump to recast and reposition himself in the fall.

Part of what frightens GOP insiders so much is The Donald’s rash unpredictability and lack of message discipline. The abortion answer reinforced this. Remember back in 2008 when Republican elites worried about how erratic John McCain was? That seems rather quaint at this juncture. As GOP strategist David Carney told my colleagues Phil and Bob, “It’s like taking a wagon full of nitroglycerine across the prairie. It’s great if you get to the mountains and blow them up for gold. But it’s pretty unpredictable.”

Message discipline is one concern, but that’s perhaps only scratching the surface of the problem Trump has created this week in Wisconsin, as I write in my column for The Fiscal Times today. In a townhall forum with CNN, Trump asserted that the top priorities for the federal government were security, education, and health care, reversing decades of Republican and conservative policy positions. He followed that up by blasting Scott Walker for refusing to raise taxes in Wisconsin while balancing a budget. Which party nomination is Trump seeking?

During a CNN Town Hall Forum, broadcast live on Tuesday evening, an audience member asked Trump, “What are the top three functions of the United States government?” After asking for the question to be repeated, Trump responded, “Well, the greatest function of all by far is security for our nation,” a sentiment shared by conservatives, Republicans, and no small numbers of independents and Democrats as well. …

However, Trump’s answer did not stop there. “I would also say health care, I would also say education,” he finished, while emphasizing that security came first. Anderson Cooper, moderating the forum, didn’t quite believe he’d heard Trump correctly. “So in terms of the federal government’s role,” Cooper asked, “you’re saying security, but you also say health care and education should be provided by the federal government?”

“Well, those are two of the things,” Trump replied. “There are obviously many things, housing, providing great neighborhoods.”

Since when do Republicans think that “providing great neighborhoods” is a function of the federal government? This answer is less of a “messaging problem” than it is a revealing look into a candidate who has little connection to the post-Reagan Republican Party identity. And if that wasn’t evidence enough of that, consider Trump’s petulant reaction to Walker’s endorsement of Ted Cruz earlier this week:

Walker endorsed Ted Cruz this week, citing his record as a “consistent conservative.” In response, Trump blasted Walker for ignoring a $2.2 billion deficit for his own political gain, and then refusing to raise taxes to cover the shortfall. “There’s a $2.2 billion deficit and the schools were going begging and everything was going begging because he didn’t want to raise taxes ’cause he was going to run for president,” Trump told radio host Michael Koolidge. “So instead of raising taxes, he cut back on schools, he cut back on highways, he cut back on a lot of things.”

Actually, the $2.2 billion deficit is a figment of Trump’s imagination. It never existed. Furthermore, neither did the massive cutbacks that Trump conjures. Spending on education, health care, and transportation all increased slightly in the latest biennial budget, just not as much as Democrats demanded. In fact, Wisconsin still spends more per capita than any of its neighboring states. Trump’s hysterical description of Walker’s budget discipline sounds much more like the kind of rhetoric one hears from Democrats and stakeholders in big government than from Republican candidates for higher office.

That’s not a messaging problem; it’s an identity problem. And it’s not Trump’s problem — it’s a challenge for the identity of the GOP and its voters.

As far as it being a Waterloo, that depends in large part on New York, Pennsylvania, and California, the biggest prizes on the primary calendar after Wisconsin. Trump’s throwback to Rockefeller Republicanism will probably play well in those states, while still leaving Trump very little chance of winning those states in the general election. If so, that will be a Waterloo for Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party, and what will follow may leave movement conservatives, fiscal discipline, and the prospect of limited government out in the cold for a long, long time.

David Strom 7:01 PM on September 24, 2022