Trump can't beat Clinton — former Bush speechwriter

A Beltway insider's view of Trump's hostile takeover of the Republican Party.

Former George W Bush speechwriter David Frum says Donald Trump can’t beat Hillary Clinton in the general election

Mr Frum says former Republican candidate Mitt Romney's attack on Mr Trump this week is “astonishing” and “unprecedented”; in 1964 even Barry Goldwater got “something that looked like an endorsement” out of moderate Dwight Eisenhower

Mr Trump has gone from joke candidate to leader by being a great television performer and appearing at a moment of crisis in US conservative politics, Mr Frum says.

But he says Mr Trump can’t beat Mrs Clinton in the election.

RAW DATA: Lisa Owen interviews David Frum on The Nation

Lisa Owen: Have the Super Tuesday results made a Trump nomination inevitable?

David Frum: Well, nothing is inevitable in politics, certainly not in American Presidential politics. But Tuesday powerfully propelled Trump forward and it did considerable damage to the person who’d been thought of as his leading opponent, Marco Rubio.

Lisa Owen: Mitt Romney has come out very strongly making comments about Trump, basically saying anyone else but Donald Trump or basically America is kind of doomed. So what difference will those comments make, do you think?

Mitt Romney’s comments are astonishing. What he has just done is provided the content for the most devastating attack ad in history – when Hillary Clinton in the fall takes clips from a speech by the last Republican nominee for president and uses it as an attack on the man who looks like he’ll be the likely next Republican nominee for president. Just to put some contrast on this, even in 1964 when Barry Goldwater ran, Goldwater managed to ring something that looked like an endorsement out of Dwight Eisenhower. It wasn’t exactly and Dwight Eisenhower didn’t like him, but they were photographed together, they did an ad together. It looked like something like a laying on of hands. The idea that the last Republican candidate, standard-bearer, the presidential nominee would be denouncing the likely next one as a crook, a con man, it’s unprecedented, and it will be devastating when it’s made into an ad in September, October, November.

Well, the way to stop Trump short of the convention, the way to stop him, wouldn’t it by stopping him winning Ohio and Florida? So do you expect some strategic voting there from, say, the ‘stop Trump’ brigade coming in behind candidates like Kasich and Rubio?

Oh, that’s possible, and Kasich is running strongly in Ohio, but Rubio is not running strongly in Florida. And so the strategy of the— sort of this regional primary where there’ll be three or four strong regional candidates, that doesn’t look very likely to work. The map gets unfavourable for Ted Cruz after this coming weekend. The map gets very dark for Marco Rubio if he doesn’t win Florida, as it doesn’t look like he will. And, really, there’s no other state for John Kasich than Ohio. So Trump may not win a majority, but it’s pretty hard to imagine how he arrives at the convention without a plurality, and he may well arrive with a majority.

Well, if no one has a clear majority of the delegates, there is a thing called a brokered convention, isn’t there? Can you explain to us simply how that works?

Well, this is something that very few people alive today have seen, but in olden times, candidates would run in various primaries and contests, and nobody would arrive at the convention with enough delegates to be the nominee. And at that point, deal-making would start. When you arrived at a convention in 1960, most of the delegates from the state of California in some way or another were beholden to the governor of California, who would be the head of the delegation. And when the governor of California went into the room and made the deal with the governor of New York, both those governors could enforce that deal on their delegates, who were state judges, state employees, state contractors, people who needed a favour from the governor. But that’s not how it works any more. These people are going to arrive at the convention and they’re going to be free actors. And by the way, they’re going to be freer than anybody has seen in a long time, because in a little-known manoeuvre, the Republic Rules Committee just dramatically loosened the requirement that delegates vote on the first ballot for the candidate they’re pledged for and they have no obligation at all to vote for anybody on a second delegate. So this will be a contested convention possibly but not a brokered convention, because there are no more brokers.

All right, so some people have called Donald Trump— basically referring to it as a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. The party doesn’t want him, but other people are saying that Republican leaders are basically reaping what they’ve sowed, you know, with the birther movement, with Trump’s comments about Mexicans and Tea Party extremists. Which do you think it is?

Well, Donald Trump comes out of a moment of crisis in the United States and especially in conservative politics. The Republican Party has a lot of repressed emotion left over from the Bush years, a lot of anger at George W Bush that didn’t have anywhere to go. The Tea Party movement was a radicalising movement, but it has to be carefully understood what the Tea Party movement was. It was a movement in defence of certain expectations that older, white, near-retired Americans had about what they were going to get from the government, expectations that seemed threatened. So what we’re seeing here is a convulsion that comes about because of disappointment with the past— the way the party worked in the past. But Donald Trump does not lead a movement. He’s an individual. He doesn’t have an organisation. Nobody quite knows what he stands for — believes in but he has become a symbol where people park a lot of emotions that have had nowhere to go over the past eight and 16 years.

Well, then if he’s not a movement as such— I mean, he’s supposed to be a flash in the pan, isn’t he, like the pizza businessman Herman Cain in 2012, so how does he go from kind of being a joke candidate to a lead contender?

By being one of the most amazing television performers that we’ve ever seen. I mean, we’ve all had the experience. You’ve watched Donald Trump, and most people after they listen to a politician for three minutes or four or six or eight, they begin to tune out. Donald Trump is mesmerising and kind of in a horrifying way. I mean, you’re wondering what he’s going to say. He’s like a contestant in a reality show, and you watch those people because they are so raw and they are so naked. You wouldn’t want to marry them, you wouldn’t want to live next door to them, but you can’t take your eyes off them.

But when you talk about reality TV, I mean, this is a guy whose catchphrase was ‘you’re fired’, so how does a billionaire with that catchphrase harness this anger from these people who are financially insecure?

Well, that was his catchphrase on The Apprentice, but if you watch The Apprentice – which I admit I hadn’t done until Donald Trump came on the scene, but I then went back and watched a lot of the old episodes – what does it show? It shows somebody who looks like a competent and effective team leader, someone who can build an organisation and make it go, who takes responsibility and who is supremely competent. The irony of this campaign is most people in the business world do not have a lot of respect for Donald Trump, and Mitt Romney expressed a lot of that lack of respect. His companies went bankrupt, he inherited a lot of money, he’s not a great deal-maker, he’s not a great businessman, but year after year on television, in front of an audience of 10 million people, he played the part of America’s most successful businessman. And a lot of people in a time of insecurity are looking to him as someone who can bring solutions.

Well, in each of the past few presidential elections, outsider candidates have become more and more popular, so what is so repugnant about politics as usual these days?

Politics as usual hasn’t worked very well. In the 1950s and 1960s and politicians presided over good results, people wanted more of the same. Also at a time when issues of war and peace were very vivid to people, the people who remembered World War II and were living under the threat of nuclear war during the Cold War, it was really important that a candidate looks steady and calm and reliable. But we have lived through a long period in which government has not delivered very much for ordinary people and which issues of war and peace are off the front burner and Americans are not as alarmed by an excitable candidate like Donald Trump as they would have been in 1958 or 1963 or 1972.

So is his popularity so far a sign that the Republican Party is broken or that the system is broken?

Well, don’t overstate how popular Donald Trump is. Donald Trump is getting about 40% of the vote in the Republican Party, which in turn represents about 35% of the country. So if you do the arithmetic, that’s about 15% of the nation there. And within the Republican Party, Donald Trump has another 40% who say they will never vote for him under any circumstances, and that’s unheard of. Normally as we get closer to having a leader, most people in the party make their peace with that leader, even if they don’t really— that he or she wasn’t their first choice. In 2008 the Democrats had a very bitter contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but by the time it was all over, Barack Obama was at least acceptable to almost all Democrats. This is not like that. Trump is passionately unacceptable to very large numbers of Republicans.

Well, so the simple question is, then, can he beat Hillary? Could he beat Hillary?

No.

Absolutely not?

You start looking at— Because we’re going to have to take our lens away now from people who vote in primaries who are very intensely committed to politics and who are different from the rest of the country. They are older, they care more, they’re more committed to a political party, and you start looking then at the big electorate, an electorate in which there are typically more women voters than men. In 2012, there was higher voter turnout among black Americans than there was among white Americans. We don’t know if it will be the same in 2016, but that is a constituency in which Donald Trump will make no inroads. Younger people come out to vote in larger numbers. When you just look at the map of American elections, I mean, barring some truly extraordinary event that utterly destroys the credibility of the incumbent presidential party, it’s very hard to see that Donald Trump, who is so unacceptable to so many groups in American society, can beat Hillary Clinton. And that is what traditional politicians like Mitt Romney are frantically trying to signal to their party.

All right. Thank you so much for joining us this morning, David Frum. We appreciate your time.

Thank you.

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