Teleprompter Trump is the best Trump.
That’s what we’ve learned over the past three weeks, as Trump has shelved his freewheeling, on-the-fly routine in favor of a more planned attack strategy on Hillary Clinton and the legacy of Barack Obama. He did it again with aplomb on Wednesday, speaking in Philadelphia about national security.
Trump led off by attempting to seize the mantle of Ronald Reagan – part of a broader attempt to effect a rapprochement with disaffected conservatives. He invoked Reagan’s “Peace Through Strength,” then added, “I am proposing a new foreign policy focused on advancing America’s core national interests, promoting regional stability, and producing an easing of tensions in the world. This will require rethinking the failed policies of the past.”
Disavowing Bush-esque nation-building, Trump instead said that “our actions in the Middle East will be tempered by realism. The current strategy of toppling regimes, with no plan for what to do the day after, only produces power vacuums that are filled by terrorists.” This is correct, of course – but it is a shift from his statements in support of Hillary Clinton’s Libyan war, for example.
Trump went on to declare that while he has no current plan to defeat ISIS, his generals – the same ones about whom he said, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do” – would devise a plan to rid the world of ISIS within thirty days. Speaking in broad generalities, Trump said he would disown Obama’s “apology tour,” instead working to “proudly promote our system of government and our way of life as the best in the world – just like we did in our campaign against communism during the Cold War. We will show the whole world how proud we are to be American.”
This is the sort of language that originally drew Republicans to Trump – the patriotic verbiage so disdained by President Obama and his post-patriotic order. It’s a departure for Trump, who said in the recent past that American exceptionalism was an offensive term to other countries. But it’s good material, nonetheless. His speechwriters have been doing their best to shave off Trump’s sharper edges, and it’s working well.
Then Trump turned left. Attempting to outflank Hillary Clinton from both sides – right on patriotism, left on warfare – Trump said, “Unlike my opponent, my foreign policy will emphasize diplomacy, not destruction. Hillary Clinton’s legacy in Iraq, Libya, and Syria has produced only turmoil and suffering…. Sometimes it has seemed like there wasn’t a country in the Middle East that Hillary Clinton didn’t want to invade, intervene or topple. She is trigger-happy and unstable when it comes to war.”
This is patent nonsense. Hillary’s legacy has produced turmoil and suffering, but except in Libya, that isn’t the result of militarism – it’s the result of diplomacy. Assad is still in power. Iraq is a disaster zone because of a precipitous pullout. Afghanistan received a fake surge from Obama, but that’s about it. Hillary was Secretary of State, not Secretary of Defense, meaning that her diplomacy was the problem. But Trump’s foreign policy is an odd combination of Pat Buchanan-esque isolationism and brash bellicosity, so presumably it makes sense to him.
Trump was at his best, as always, while attacking Hillary head-on. He bashed her for her recklessness regarding her private server, quoted last Friday’s devastating FBI document dump, and concluded, “Her conduct is simply disqualifying.” All true.
But again as always, Trump’s diagnosis may be correct but his prescription is spotty. He slammed the Obama administration for cutting the defense budget, then said he would attempt to eliminate the defense sequester – a solid idea, but one that would come with a blowout budget that the Democrats would negotiate on the other end. To cover the cost of additional defense spending, Trump blithely assured Americans that he would “ask Congress to fully offset the costs of increased military spending. In the process, we will make government leaner and more responsive to the public.” Where would such offsets come from? From waste and fraud, of course! That means nothing, other than increased deficits.
Trump’s policy on NATO is similarly incoherent. He stated that he’d be “requesting that all NATO nations promptly pay their bills,” including leveraging additional cash from Germany, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. He didn’t say what he’d do to leverage that cash, but presumably he’d threaten to abandon them to the whims of America’s enemies, as he’s stated before.
Trump did get highly specific about his proposed defense budget, however:
We will build an active Army of around 540,000, as the Army’s chief of staff has said he needs. We now have only 31 Brigade Combat Teams, or 490,000 troops, and only one-third of combat teams are considered combat-ready. We will build a Marine Corps based on 36 battalions, which the Heritage Foundation notes is the minimum needed to deal with major contingencies – we have 23 now. We will build a Navy of 350 surface ships and submarines, as recommended by the bipartisan National Defense Panel – we have 276 ships now. And we will build an Air Force of at least 1,200 fighter aircraft, which the Heritage Foundation has shown to be needed to execute current missions – we have 1,113 now. We will also seek to develop a state of the art missile defense system.
This is excellent. And Trump was similarly specific about cybersecurity, classification rules (“Nothing threatens the integrity of our Democracy more than when government officials put their public office up for sale”), and assessment of strategic vulnerabilities.
Finally, he concluded with a veiled reference to Colin Kaepernick and Barack Obama’s support for him: “And we will follow their example of unity. We will work across all racial and income lines to create One American Nation. Together, we will have one great American future. We will be one people, under one God, saluting one American flag.”
Overall, it was another excellent speech from Trump. Whoever has been keeping him on a leash is doing a spectacular job of it, especially given what we know about Trump’s pathological inability to control himself. The polls reflect a tightening race. While Trump still has a steep hill to climb, he’s at least trying to climb it publicly. He still hasn’t built the campaign infrastructure necessary to prevail, but he’s becoming the more disciplined candidate so many people have been seeking for months.