It's too late for Donald Trump to reposition himself

By Walter Shapiro, Roll Call  |  Aug. 25, 2016 at 8:59 AM
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Since Donald Trump barely speaks above a whisper and comes across as modest as Mahatma Gandhi, it is easy for a self-serving press corps to misconstrue what he has been advocating.

Here are some telling examples of how the Republican nominee's gospel of peace and harmony has been falsely portrayed by click-happy media elites:

• Trump never said that he wanted to "deport" the 11 million immigrants here without valid papers. What Trump really suggested was that these hardworking new Americans should work on their "deportment" so they could get high-paying jobs.

• Even though he is the most successful real estate developer since the Pharaohs built the pyramids, Trump has no interest in building a border "wall." His idea has always been to work with the Mexicans to create a world-class "mall" to boost the economy on both sides of the Rio Grande.

• Even more wrongheaded is the idea that Trump is engaging in name-calling when he dubs his opponent "Crooked Hillary." What Trump is really doing — and it's a public service — is highlighting bone density issues for women of a certain age and advocating more research funds for osteoporosis.

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These examples are about as outlandish as the real-life notion that Trump believes that he can reposition himself as a caring moderate on immigration. The bilious billionaire said during a recent Fox News town hall, "There certainly can be a softening [of immigration laws] because we're not looking to hurt people."

That was enough to prompt Ann Coulter (author of the just-published In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome!) to declare, "This could be the shortest book tour ever if he's really softening his position on immigration."

Memo to Trump: If you've lost Ann Coulter, you've lost Middle America.

Actually that's what LBJ said about Walter Cronkite. But Coulter and Cronkite are roughly equivalent as cultural icons, aren't they?

Political journalists are as devoted to the pivot as basketball coaches. The idea — which Trump is awkwardly emulating — that candidates move to the middle for the general election is engrained in campaign mythology.

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But such changes of emphasis only work if they are credible. Hillary Clinton, who cultivated a hawkish reputation on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is well-positioned these days to reach out to key figures in the GOP foreign policy establishment who are appalled by Trump's isolationism and global ignorance.

Trump, on the other hand, largely based his primary campaign on exaggerated fears of illegal immigration. That's why Trump could more plausibly reposition himself as a dedicated reader of Marcel Proust than as a caring supporter of border-crossing Mexicans.

Of course, it is difficult for anyone, including probably Trump himself, to decipher what the GOP nominee actually believes. The former reality-show host seemingly developed his policy positions based on which outrageous comments garnered the loudest shouts of approval at his rallies. Had "build a wall" laid an egg, Trump would have dropped it like a stand-up comic jettisoning a joke.

[Trump's Most Absurd Promise: He'll Bring Us Together]

That's why trying to imagine a Trump presidency is an exercise best left to dystopian novelists. But what seems certain is that few clues can be found in the words that the wildly improvisational Trump reads off a teleprompter. Especially since the person who wrote the words will probably be fired in the next campaign shake-up.

Too many campaign reporters fall victim to an obtuse literalism in comparing the candidates on the issues. What matters for understanding a future president is whether campaign positions fit within the fabric of a candidate's career. For example, Clinton's opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is probably more a temporary sop to Bernie Sanders supporters than the precursor of a lasting move toward protectionism in the White House.

Even what candidates say with sincerity on the campaign trail is not always an accurate barometer of a presidency. George W. Bush opposed "nation-building" in a 2000 debate with Al Gore only to boldly try (and fail) to reconstruct Iraq less than three years later. During the 2008 primaries, Barack Obama attacked Clinton for supporting a healthcare mandate on individuals. That mandate is now a central tenet of Obamacare.

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That's why a strong case can be made that temperament may matter more in assessing a would-be president than position papers. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the legendary Supreme Court justice, wrote after meeting Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, "A second-class intellect. But a first-class temperament!"

Clinton has her flaws ranging from obsessive secrecy to an exaggerated contempt for the media. But compared to the bombastic Trump or even her mercurial husband, she boasts the kind of temperament that might prompt Holmes to deploy an exclamation mark.

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: "Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer." Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.
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