Donald Trump, Chameleon Extraordinaire

With a fast reversal on the minimum wage, the de-facto Republican nominee shows why Hillary Clinton is attacking his character more than his policies.

Jeff Chiu / AP

It took Donald Trump less than a day as the presumptive Republican nominee to reverse himself on a major economic-policy issue.

Don’t pretend to be surprised.

In an interview Wednesday with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Trump said he was “looking” at a possible increase in the federal minimum wage, which has stood at $7.25 an hour for nearly seven years. “I’m open to doing something with it because I don’t like that,” Trump said. This from a man who said during a November GOP debate that wages were “too high” and that he was “sorry to say it, but we have to leave [the federal floor] where it is.”

Was Trump’s flip-flop the start of a carefully-planned and much-anticipated pivot to the general election? Is he suddenly trying to appeal to Democrats now that he has dispatched each of the small-government conservative ideologues who ran in the Republican primary? Or did he simply forget what his position was on the minimum wage?

If you’re Hillary Clinton, it doesn’t really matter. Trump’s slipperiness on policy details has been a theme of his candidacy and, quite possibly, a core part of his appeal to voters. He’s a dealmaker, and as he has said repeatedly when pressed about his positions, “Everything is negotiable.” His reversal on the minimum wage wasn’t even his only flip-flop of the day, but it joins a long list of others; it took Politico a few thousand words to try to catalogue all of his contradictions.

Yet Trump’s ability to be a political chameleon has significant implications for how Democrats go after him in the fall. “This is what makes @realdonaldtrump an elusive target,” David Axelrod, President Obama’s former top strategist, tweeted on Thursday. “He believes in himself. Everything else is fungible.”

Judging by their initial web videos and ads, Clinton’s team understands this. They are trying to frighten voters about Trump’s personality, temperament, and rhetoric—not necessarily his policies. The pitch is that he’s a demagogue rather than an ideologue. Instead of focusing the viewer’s attention on what Trump has promised to do, they are running a lowlight reel of all the things he might do if he’s sitting in the Oval Office. “I do think he’s a loose cannon,” Clinton told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday, “and loose cannons tend to misfire.”

In 2012, the Obama campaign faced its own decision about how best to go after Mitt Romney. It could have followed the lead of Romney’s GOP rivals, who branded him a serial flip-flopper by highlighting his shifts on abortion, gay rights, immigration, and other issues. But they went in another direction instead. Taking Romney at his most recent word—remember how he boasted of being “severely conservative?”—the Obama campaign attacked him as an ideologue. In some ways, Romney vindicated that decision by tapping Paul Ryan, the architect of some of the most “severely conservative” policies in Congress, as his running mate.

Then as now, the choice is about what will be most effective in turning out the party base, and it always comes back to fear. A politician with his finger in the wind might be lacking in principle, but if he’s constantly following public opinion, he’s less likely to stray far from the mainstream than a hardcore ideologue. He is, in other words, less frightening both to liberal and moderate voters who might not otherwise go to the polls. And if Trump’s refusal to be nailed down on policy didn’t hurt him with Republicans, why would it turn off voters who didn’t like his flirtation with conservatism to begin with?

The Trump policy positions that Clinton will likely target are those he hasn’t wavered on—the famous wall, the pledge to deport undocumented immigrants, and his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. Just don’t expect too many hard-hitting spots on issues like the minimum wage. Like so much else about The Donald, that position is subject to change.