Donald Trump is set to announce within the next two weeks his intentions regarding the upcoming presidential election. He has flirted with running, posed as a candidate on the stump, and even gained media attention and respectable poll numbers. Here’s why he won’t run for president:
He can’t win, neither the general election nor the Republican nomination, and shrewd, successful businessman do not haphazardly squander their resources on lost causes.
Trump can’t win, and won’t run, for a number of reasons. As a lifelong Democrat (until very recently) he has no history with the Republican voter, and no visible connection with either Republican officeholders or policies. Granted that in New York being a Democrat is countercultural, owing to the moribund condition of the NY Republican Party (moribund is an overstatement). A businessman who wants to curry favor and contracts with local government is a Democrat by default. Such might be true in a New York context, but does not play well nationally. His political past will catch up to him on the stump.
Furthermore, beyond the bluster and the populist rhetoric (which appeals to the media far more than to the average voter), Trump has little to offer the Republican voter. His record is largely unknown on the “moral” issues that interest a large percentage of the conservative vote, but likely more liberal than will play in much of the Republican base. A skilled communicator, he is able to concisely summarize the American frustration with a host of intractable problems – China, radical Islam, etc. – and articulate those frustrations in a colorful way, but he is noticeably slender on solutions or even approaches. “Slap a 25% tariff on Chinese goods!” – a wonderful tactic that, implemented, will enrage the American consumer who enjoys the inexpensive Chinese products, and induce the Chinese to close their huge market to American products. The Chinese, being an unfree society, are much more capable of absorbing economic hardship than are Americans. So the threat sounds good, but is ultimately toothless.
Trump’s personal life is checkered, to say the least, and one that is off-putting (rightly or wrongly) to the average Republican voter. The estimable Newt Gingrich himself suffers from a similar circumstance, and Trump is Newt without the ideas. What might not matter in a presidential election often is a central issue in a primary campaign. And the mere fact that Trump is subordinating his presidential ambitions until his television show completes its season bespeaks a lack of seriousness about the Presidency. That itself is a reflection of the impoverished state of the polity wherein “celebrities” are the choicest candidates – and policies, accomplishments and gravitas are secondary and tertiary considerations.
Trump is also a businessman, meaning that he runs a business that caters to a specific clientele. When he begins taking positions on issues – pro/anti-abortion, pro/anti -same-sex marriage, pro/anti -war, pro/anti – enhanced interrogations, pro/anti – tax increases, pro/anti – indefinite unemployment insurance – he runs the risk of alienating his customer base, committed to one side or another on any issue. There are many casinos and even more television shows from which people can choose if they are dismayed by the politics of any entrepreneur.
His strongest asset – besides the outsized personality – has always been the marketing of his name, associated with glitz, glamour, success, and opulence. But what if the “name” is far more substantive than the portfolio ? A presidential candidate is expected to reveal all his present finances, as well as his financial history. Trump has had his share of successes – and very public failures, including near bankruptcy that require extensive reorganization of his holdings. What if the Trump empire rests on shaky foundations ? Or, imagine if banks owned more of Trump than Trump did, or that his expenditures for long periods of time far exceeded his revenues. If that were the case, Trump would be no more than a microcosm of the American government, with little credibility on the small matter of the pending insolvency of the American government. It is therefore extremely unlikely that he would want to disclose his entire financial world.
Certainly, the United States has had businessmen who ran for president. The last person who ran for president having never been elected to any office – and an industrialist and lawyer at that – was Wendell Wilkie, who gained the Republican nomination in 1940 and lost to FDR by 5,000,000 votes (out of 50,000,000 cast). The electoral defeat was a landslide, with FDR defeating Wilkie by 449-82. Since then, every nominee has been a politician – with the outlier exception of the war hero Eisenhower. That is not necessarily a good thing; since the presidency is the highest political office in the land, it makes some sense that a politician should seek it.
The other example, perhaps more apposite here, is Ross Perot – another populist, outlandish, colorful businessman who inserted himself into the 1992 presidential race – and at one point in June 1992 even led in the polls. He also financed his campaign by reaching into his personal fortune. But the glare of publicity, the lack of any specificity in his platform, and his perceived eccentricity doomed his candidacy. (Perot turned out to be the “crazy aunt in the attic” he often spoke of.) He wound up with 19% of the vote – the most by any third-party candidate – but without any electoral votes. He also handed the presidency to Bill Clinton, who defeated George H.W. Bush by just 43% to 39%. Would Bush have defeated Clinton if Perot had not been in the race ? That remains a very open debate and an unanswerable question, but it easily could have changed the electoral vote dynamics in Bush’s favor.
As no third-party candidate has ever won election, it is not expected that Trump would run as a third-party candidate. But if he did, he might have the opposite effect of the Perot candidacy. Rather than swing the election away from the incumbent to the challenger (as Perot arguably did), a third-party Trump candidacy would hand the election to the incumbent, assuming with some logic that Trump voters would not vote for Obama but might have voted for the Republican challenger. But Trump won’t run as a third-party candidate – for the same reason Mike Bloomberg didn’t in 2008: you can’t win, and so it is a waste of time and money. In fact, he won’t run at all.
So why the tease ? It is good for business. Even pretending to run promotes the Trump brand, far more than would actually running. So look for Trump to announce with much fanfare on his television show finale (or soon after) that he is not running for president but that he, as a businessman, will focus on the more magnanimous act of creating jobs and wealth for others, and that he will support the candidate who has the best plan to create jobs, balance the budget, reverse the deficit, keep American strong, etc. The ratings will be through the roof, and Republicans will return to the less enthralling task of finding a real candidate and viable opponent to President Obama. The White House would love to run against Trump; that is why they mention him frequently, and why they ignore those they consider potential threats like Huckabee, Romney or Gingrich.
Unless, of course, the pleasures of the ego and the national spotlight prove to be irresistible. In that case, please disregard the above, and only read it when Trump drops out of the race next February.