Trump Has to Choose: Lose Like Dukakis, or Like Goldwater

If the Republican nominee is defeated in a landslide, the party may be powerless to influence Clinton's agenda and administration.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The days are shortening, the back-to-school sales are starting—and Donald Trump is approaching his last chance to turn a catastrophic campaign into an ordinarily unsuccessful campaign: to rise from Goldwater debacle to respectable Dukakis defeat.

Such hope seems to have inspired Trump’s speech in North Carolina yesterday: Its remarkable language of solidarity and its unprecedented—for Trump anyway—expression of regret for words that caused pain.

The difference between a Goldwater and Dukakis outcome is the difference between holding a Republican majority in at least one chamber  of Congress and a down-ballot deluge that would open the way to a new bout of Democratic legislative activism. For conservatives, it is the difference between mitigating the excesses of the Affordable Care Act and driving onward to government-run health insurance; between another burst of tax increases and the opportunity to bargain for tax cuts; between influence over Supreme Court appointments and being powerless as the justices are replaced; between outright amnesty for immigrants who are in the country illegally and stopping people from coming over U.S. borders.

Trump’s mission should not be hard. It’s not ingenious. It may even be starting.

1) Refrain from doing suicidally stupid things. Hillary Clinton? Remember her? First woman to be nominated by a major U.S. political party? She is kind of a big deal. A lot of people dislike her for one reason or another. She is in effect the incumbent candidate, the one with the record to defend. If voters were thinking about her, rather than about Trump’s latest offense, the out-party might do better; the in-party would likely fare worse. Yet the Republican nominee’s apparent media strategy—“all me, all the time, and I don’t care if I have to release naked photographs of my wife in order to do it”—has focused American attention on the awfulness of only one of their choices. Perhaps if Trump would quit yapping, voters would focus on the bad aspects of the other.

2) It pays to advertise. The most powerful advertising dollar is the first, the dollar that turns “no advertising” into “some advertising.” As is, Hillary Clinton has the airways to herself—and has been allowed to conserve dollars in what should be competitive states, such as Colorado, and redirect them to what should not be competitive states, such as Georgia.

3) Come home, Republicans. If polls are correct, one-fifth of Republicans will refuse to vote for their party’s nominee—catastrophic for the party. Third-party alternatives, the Libertarians and the Greens, are showing astonishing performances in important states (Stein at 7 in Colorado according to Quinnipiac, Johnson at 9 in Virginia according to Washington Post/ABC). This seems an aberrational and unsustainable state of affairs. Perhaps Gary Johnson will genuinely prove to be the John Anderson of 2016 and hold a big bloc of votes to the very end. But for a generation, minor parties are usually reduced by minor factors by the first Tuesday in November.

The Republican brand is not strong enough to win an election all by itself. It is strong enough to put a floor below 40 percent––but only if the current brand holder will remind the brand’s core market of the things they used to like. Trump’s renewed attack on Republican party leaders may delight angry right-leaning independent populists. But regular Republicans tend not to be revolutionaries—and ceasing to frighten them away from the polls, or all the way over to a hold-their-nose Clinton vote—is one way to put a floor under the Trump free-fall.

4) Immigration, not immigrants. It really is possible to show respect for the achievements and contributions of America’s legal immigrants––past, present, and future––while also addressing American concerns about immigration. During her previous presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton opposed drivers’ licenses for people who are in the country illegally. Her position has evolved now to opposing virtually all and any enforcement action against illegal immigrants, unless they have committed some major non-immigration-related crime. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies claims that the immigration reforms advanced by the Obama administration and Republican senators in 2013 would have issued 30 million green cards over the next 10 years, double the level then provided for by law. At a time of wage stagnation, it should not be difficult to explain the risks of reviving this approach. Wages are no more immune to the laws of supply and demand than any other price. Yet Hillary Clinton has stated that this kind of reform will be a first priority for her as president.

5) Believe the data. Losing campaigns always deny polls. Do coaches at halftime tell trailing teams, “Yep, we’re getting whomped, this game is pretty much over?” Obviously no.

But it’s one thing to say “Says who?” to a cable moderator, and a different thing to lie to yourself. Yes, the Trump campaign is  getting whomped. It should absorb that––perhaps turning the whomping into a mere dunking––and save something from the larger wreck. That is, assuming Donald Trump and his team care anything about any larger interest than their own.