There is nothing steady about Donald Trump’s policy platform.
To the extent that he takes positions on critical issues, the Republican nominee is prone to revising and obfuscating them. Most recently, he reportedly had softened his stance on what to do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America. Suddenly, it seemed, he was open to figuring out some kind of legal status for these people after having spent the campaign talking about a deportation force.
A few nights later, Trump insisted that nothing had changed. But the businessman has been inconsistent in so many areas that it’s hard to know, not just what he believes now, but what he’s ever believed. He’s called for both raising and lowering the minimum wage. He’s talked about valuing women’s health decisions while also saying he’d punish women seeking abortions. He’s repeatedly claimed that he was against the invasions of Iraq and Libya, even though he said at the time that he supported both. He blamed the pullout of troops from Iraq for causing the spread of ISIS, without mentioning that he supported that drawdown. He’s called for tax hikes for the wealthy and promoted a tax plan that would do the opposite. He’s claimed he wouldn’t mind if Japan got nuclear weapons and then denied he said any such thing. He’s spoken favorably of H-1B visas and criticized them as well. He’s continued to say he’s self-funding even as he’s brought in millions of dollars from donors. He’s claimed not to know David Duke despite being on video disavowing the KKK official years prior. He’s even said he’s both thin-skinned and thick-skinned, temperamentally speaking.
A list like this would seem to provide a tidy political opportunity for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But by and large, the former secretary of state and her staff have refrained from going after Trump for his routine inconsistencies. Responding to the latest immigration policy news, for instance, her campaign chairman John Podesta treated the apparent shift as if it hadn’t happened at all.
“We believe the RNC official in the room, the campaign’s statement after the meeting and the candidate himself that Donald Trump’s immigration plan remains the same as it’s always been: tear apart families and deport 16 million people from the United States,” Podesta’s statement read.
The decision to largely avoid going after Trump as a serial flip-flopper is one that top officials at Clinton’s campaign say was made without hesitation. Though there is recent history to suggest it could work (the man who succeeded Clinton at Foggy Bottom, John Kerry, can attest to that), they concluded that the charge was too complicated to land effectively.
Part of the reason is the erratic nature of Trump’s policy pronouncements. As one top Clinton aide explained to The Huffington Post, it’s difficult to attack the GOP nominee for flip-flopping if, ultimately, he ends up at the very same position where he started.
“He’s actively pushing back that he changed this morning,” the aide noted of the latest immigration policy reversal.
But the main reason the Clinton camp has kept the “flip-flopper” charge on the shelf is because their research shows that voters respond better to the idea that Trump’s motives are subconscious, rather than political. It was, the aide said, the difference between being opportunistic and being “unstable” ― a word used by other Clinton officials in recent interviews to describe the GOP nominee.
“The effectiveness is showing people who he is,” explained Joel Benenson, Clinton’s chief strategist. “When you make bigoted and racist comments, attack war heroes, it shows your lack of character to the American people. And our job is to not let voters forget who this man is and how he has vilified so many different groups of people through this campaign. It is part of what makes him unfit and it is what are explaining in very simple terms.”
The result has been a campaign strategy that has, somewhat remarkably, largely bypassed Trump’s ideological vacillations, even as the topic fascinates much of the press corps. To date, the ads run by the Clinton team and allied groups have spent little time spotlighting Trump’s inconsistencies, instead focusing almost entirely on his more outlandish moments.
“Regardless of what side of an issue Trump stumbles on at any given time, the fundamental argument against him remains the same,” said Guy Cecil, head of the Clinton-backing super PAC Priorities USA, in an email. “He does not have the judgement, character, or temperament to be President. He is a danger to our national security and our economy. It’s much more important to be focused on that core argument, than getting sidetracked by other things.”
Of course, it might be that Clinton is reluctant to attack Trump as a flip-flopper because she fears it could boomerang back on her. Whereas George W. Bush was able to attack Kerry as a waffler because he’d made his own unshakeable convictions a selling point of his candidacy, Clinton would likely have difficulty pulling that off.
“I think she carries her own trust issues that it wouldn’t be helpful to argue that on,” said Matthew Dowd, a senior adviser to Bush’s 2004 campaign. “Best to argue your strength vs. their weakness. Trust is weak territory for her.”
But it’s also possible that voters simply don’t care much anymore if a candidate hops between one side and the other on major policy matters. In 2012, the Obama re-election campaign faced a similar target in Mitt Romney, who had drifted rightward as he moved from governor of liberal-leaning Massachusetts to a conservative firebrand. They, too, largely bypassed on using the flip-flopper label.
“Our concern was that if you called him a flip-flopper, it implied that the moderate views he displayed as a governor were a truer reflection of how he would govern,” explained David Axelrod, longtime aide to President Barack Obama.
As Axelrod sees it, it’s wise for Clinton’s team to make the same play, if only because labeling Trump a flip-flopper would provide “swing voters a permission structure to conclude he won’t really do the disturbing things he’s vowed to do over the past year.”