Trump's Change of Heart on Cuba: Master Stroke or Political Suicide?

Donald Trump has now thrown the Republican Party the latest in a long line of curve balls (or, in Chris Christie's preferred idiom, punches to the face). Reversing position from his previous Presidential run in 1999, the Republican front-runner now says he supports U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations--just not the way the Obama Administration did it.

"I think it's fine, but we should have made a better deal," Trump told The Daily Caller in a Sept. 7 interview. What would the self-proclaimed master of The Art of the Deal have done differently? Trump didn't say, and interviewer Jamie Weinstein didn't ask. As puzzling as Weinstein's failure to follow-up is, we can be sure that this won't be the last time Trump is asked to elaborate on--and defend--his newfound support for U.S.-Cuba relations. Among the first to jump will be fellow Presidential aspirants Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, both of whom have roundly denounced the move.

Bush and Rubio are, of course, both Floridians with longstanding ties to South Florida's Cuban-American community, which makes their opposition less than surprising. For the past half-century, the support of Cuban exiles has been indispensible for any Florida Republican to achieve statewide office. The same logic has long applied for any Republican hoping to win electoral-vote-rich Florida in a Presidential election.

But as Trump has perhaps figured out, that logic may no longer hold. Obama won Florida in 2008 and 2012--both times resoundingly carrying Miami-Dade County, historically home to the reliably Republican Cuban exile community. Even John Kerry, who lost Florida in 2004, carried Miami-Dade County.

All of this makes Trump's apparent reversal on Cuba a fascinating, if not necessarily game-changing move. In 1999 candidate Trump, briefly of the Reform Party, espoused a hard line against Cuba, calling Fidel Castro "absolutely a killer" and promising cheering Cuban-Americans that he would have "two words for him: 'Adios, amigo!'" Trump also shared his intention of building the first hotel in a free Cuba. As recently as last month, his (now former) adviser Roger Stone assured POLITICO that the candidate remained opposed to opening relations.

So what lies behind Trump's apparent about-face? Is his statement that the opening of U.S.-Cuba relations "is fine" just an off-the-cuff comment, a brief aside in a long interview that covered many other topics? Or does it signal a change in his political calculations? Trump's thinking has "evolved" in several other areas this election cycle, but in almost every case he has moved closer to Republican orthodoxy: on abortion and marijuana legalization, which he once supported but now opposes; and an assault-weapons ban, which he once backed but now does not.

But in changing his Cuban tune Trump stands in direct opposition to every other Republican Presidential candidate except for Sen. Rand Paul, whose backing of Obama's Cuba policy has gained him no support and may have cost him (although his recent slide in the polls and inability to raise money are probably attributable to larger factors, among them Trump's rise). How might a position that has done nothing for Paul work in Trump's favor, considering that the Cuban exile vote remains key to winning the Florida GOP primary?

Perhaps Trump has written off Florida. That would make sense, given Rubio's and Bush's longstanding ties to the state. If that is the case, then one wonders whether Trump's shift on Cuba is calculated to deprive Paul of an issue that distinguishes him from the pack. But then why Cuba? And why concern himself at all with a guy who's polling in the low single digits?

The answer to Trump's 180, assuming that it is a calculated one, likely has less to do with Rand Paul or Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush than it does with Cuban-Americans. He's not so much writing off Florida as he is the Cuban exile vote, which holds nowhere near the muscle it did back when he so enthusiastically courted it in 1999. As Trump's various policy shifts have made exceedingly clear, he is at his core a businessman who, unlike his more ideologically-bound opponents, knows a bottom line when he sees one. He recognizes that renewed U.S.-Cuba relations have already happened, are happening, regardless of his or anyone else's continued opposition to it, and that it's best at this point to get on the right side, if not of history, at least of the money trail.

If standing against U.S.-Cuba relations helps the eventual Republican nominee win the Florida GOP primary, it will do them no favors in the general election--especially in already-blue Miami-Dade County, where even Cuban-Americans are turning away from the hard line. Trump, I think, gets this. His fellow Republicans, especially Rubio and Bush, may continue to Party like it's 1999, but they do so at their political peril.