If George W. Bush was the decider, consider Donald Trump the un-decider. This week, the current president abandoned a string of his best-known policy positions over a matter of days.
- At a press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: “The secretary general and I had a productive discussion about what more NATO can do in the fight against terrorism. I complained about that a long time ago and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism. I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.” (On March 22: “NATO, obsolete, because it doesn’t cover terrorism” — a claim that is untrue.)
- On China, in a Wall Street Journal interview: “They’re not currency manipulators.” (On April 2: “You know, when you talk about, when you talk about currency manipulation, when you talk about devaluations, they are world champions.”)
- On Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen, in that same Wall Street Journal interview: “No, not toast … I like her, I respect her. It’s very early.” (On May 5, 2016: “She is not a Republican. … When her time is up, I would most likely replace her because of the fact that I think it would be appropriate.”)
This is just a taste; NBC’s First Read counted up 13 flip-flops in the last few months.
It’s certainly noteworthy that the president has undone so many positions in such a short time frame — Americans might reasonably want to know exactly what their leader believes. But what kind of political consequences will he suffer? Potentially very few — at least in the short term — according to political experts. Here’s why.
1) Lots of his supporters don’t love him for specific policies, anyway.
In 2004, one massive flip-flop was a crippling blow to John Kerry’s campaign (See: his comments on how he “actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it”). Last year, however, Trump made flip-flop after flip-flop during the presidential campaign — and he still won.
Policy flip-flops simply didn’t seem to stick to him. One reason may be that very specific policy proposals just aren’t what people like about him.
“I think there probably is something to the idea that to a degree his appeal isn’t policy-based,” says Robert Van Houweling, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied flip-flopping. “One answer why he has more latitude than some politicians is that his appeal was more visceral.”
Because of that, it’s quite possible that Trump’s approval rating won’t inch down much as a result of a half-dozen 180s.
“I’ve just been out going to a bunch of town halls this week, and I don’t see any evidence that it’s hurting him at all,” says Mark McKinnon, a longtime strategist who served George W. Bush, among others. “And in fact, what I would say is for opponents of Trump, they’re very happy to see him changing positions, and his supporters don’t really care. It’s remarkable.”
Of course, it’s true that there are a few key policies that Trump’s voters did latch onto, like building a wall. But then, part of his “visceral” appeal came not just from the idea of building a wall (or proposing a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” or imposing massive tariffs on China), but from his tough image in general. That toughness continues to win voters over.
“When people vote for presidents, it’s more for attributes than it is for issues,” McKinnon adds. “And there’s usually strength, trust, and you know, ‘Does he reflect my values?’ Those are the three big ones. And he’s doing really well on strength right now” because of his recent actions in Syria — which also, by the way, constitute a flip-flop.
Indeed, Republicans now overwhelmingly support missile strikes in Syria — a reversal from 2013, during the Obama presidency, when two-thirds said they did not.
2) He doesn’t have much support to lose.
Speaking of that approval rating, it’s already at near-historic-lows for a new president. Those who approve of him have already stuck with him through a litany of flip-flops. Those who disapprove — well, they already disapprove.
With an approval rating of around 60 percent, a president likely has more people who aren’t truly dedicated to them, Van Houweling says, “so you quickly see the effect of sort of damaging political moves in that context.”
That kind of signal may not show up when you have been riding at around 40 to 45 percent for a while, he says.
“It’s not easy to get a 10 percent decline in your popularity when you start out with really just your core supporters viewing your job being done well to begin with” — particularly, he adds, if those supporters are already used to Trump’s views on policy being easily changeable.
3) Some of these policies aren’t exactly emotional issues for Americans.
Trump just did do more major policy about-faces in a few days than other presidents might take years to do. But not all of these flip-flops are terribly meaningful to most Americans.
Consider monetary policy. In 2015, 70 percent of Americans didn’t know who Janet Yellen was. So suddenly saying he might reappoint her as Federal Reserve chair might reasonably not bother many Americans all that much.
Likewise, Trump said over and over and over that he’d label China a “currency manipulator.” The average American has little reason to know exactly how currency manipulation works.
One addendum here is that while Trump’s policy message on China has changed, his tone hasn’t budged much. He still proved on Twitter on Thursday morning that he’s willing to talk tough on China: “I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will!”
Trump does have some particularly strong policy views, but no particular ideology is so central to his identity as that tough-guy image. It may be that maintaining that image, as opposed to maintaining particular policy views, is what will allow him to remain constant in voters’ minds.
4) Some flip-flops can be seen as good flip-flops.
One upside to the Trump China flip-flop: He flipped in the direction of truth. China really hasn’t been manipulating its currency recently. (The Washington Post’s Fact Checker in December called the currency manipulation claims “way out of date.”)
To the extent that Trump’s flip-flops reflect changing circumstances — or him acknowledging current circumstances —flip-flops could be viewed positively.
“Conditions do change, and you have to change with them. I mean, that’s part of the job,” says Stephen Wayne, professor of government and an expert in the American presidency at Georgetown University.
Indeed, presidents have made flip-flops that were, in retrospect, smart moves, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie has outlined. In his view, flip-flopping can be seen as “a skill,” as opposed to a weakness.
In addition, Trump’s recent about-faces may win him some respect among policymakers.
“He may face some compliments from mainstream Republicans who inhabit the swamp that he’s not so bad after all,” Wayne adds.
Win Some, Lose Some?
While the flip-flops may even endear a few more moderate Republicans to Trump, such endorsements could come at the expense of Washington Republicans who had been inclined to support him in the past, Wayne says.
The question is how that plays out in the long term. Given enough flip-flops (and who knows how many that could be?), it could eventually make Trump a less effective president. Trump has a Republican majority in both the House and the Senate, but some of those GOP policymakers might reasonably find it difficult to sign onto Trump’s agenda when they can’t be sure that that agenda won’t change tomorrow.
Then again, some Republicans see Trump’s fast-changing positions in a positive light: to them, he’s not so much squishy as flexible. That’s what McKinnon has learned from conversations from some Republican lawmakers.
“The sense is that he actually listens. He doesn’t have a rigid set of ideas and a rigid ideology and rigid convictions,” McKinnon says. “Unlike other presidents, maybe he better responds to events as they unfold.”