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Trump won by running as a moderate Republican

His undoing will be that he doesn’t govern like one.

Mark Penn, who is a bad writer and a sloppy thinker (see Ezra Klein’s 2007 takedown) last week published a bad op-ed in the New York Times (see Alex Pareene’s takedown), which mostly seemed to serve to demonstrate that the great wheel of history has turned to a point at which nobody in Democratic Party politics takes him seriously anymore.

But the extent of the Penn backlash served to remind me that many people not only think his specific ideas are bad but that the whole concept of trying to win elections by “moving to the center” is dumb. In particular, many liberals seem to have convinced themselves that Donald Trump’s election proves this whole idea is obsolete and electioneering should be conducted purely as a base mobilization strategy.

That strikes me as the wrong lesson to learn from Trump. If anything, just the opposite. His success in overcoming a lot of problems as a candidate is a case study in the virtues of old-fashioned centrism — he ran and won by putting himself forward as a more ideologically moderate politician than previous GOP presidential nominees, and a big potential weakness in office is that he is betraying aspects of that promise.

Trump was seen, rightly, as a moderate

As FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten points out, standard polling measures of perceived ideology scored Trump as the most moderate GOP nominee in a generation or two.

On one level, this simply demonstrates the limits of this kind of measure.

But on another level, it captures something true and important about Trump’s campaign. If someone who seemed even-keeled and temperate (John Kasich, say) had run on a platform of avoiding all cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, we would have rightly seen that as an enormous departure from conservative ideological orthodoxy and a huge move toward the center on economic issues.

If he threw into the mix some skepticism about the virtues of free trade and a little token praise of Planned Parenthood while criticizing George W. Bush’s foreign policy as excessively grandiose and dropping all talk of reversing LGBTQ marriage equality (to say nothing of equal rights to military service), then we’d say that, yes, Republicans had decided to try to win by moving to the center.

Obviously Trump is not even-keeled and temperate. And that’s part of the reason why Fox News, talk radio, and a large swath of the GOP primary electorate loved him. He leaned into the overtly racist aspects of anti-Obama and anti-immigrant politics rather than shying away from them. But even on these issues, Trump’s stated policy position was not in any clear way more extreme than where Paul Ryan landed after the collapse of the Gang of 8 immigration bill.

Trump promised to avoid cuts to the three biggest welfare state program out there, and he more vaguely promised to create some kind of universal health care system. He had a lot of offsetting disadvantages as a general election candidate, but in pure issue terms, he repositioned the GOP to the center, and it worked.

Democrats should take this more seriously

Trump’s move to the middle on Social Security and Medicare has received remarkably little attention in endless post-election retrospectives, particularly those focused on how Democrats can “win back” white working-class voters who defected from the Obama coalition. It’s entirely possible that some of these voters can’t be won back, not because they’re “deplorable” racists but because Trump is offering them what they want.

It was convenient for Democrats that for years, Republicans were committed to profoundly unpopular positions on entitlement programs that made it possible for Democrats to win the votes of some cross-pressured, culturally conservative whites. But even though Trumpism hardly amounts to a coherent ideology, the promise to protect the concrete material interests of older working-class people has some real appeal on the merits.

At the same time, these are important substantive victories. Democrats felt good in 2005 when they defeated George W. Bush’s effort to privatize Social Security, and alarmed during the 2012 campaign when it seemed like one or two bad jobs reports might mean the election of a GOP determined to privatize Medicare. Trump brought the GOP to power by affirming the inviolability of the two largest domestic programs while substantively surrendering on the same-sex marriage issue that dominated the culture war politics of a decade ago.

For a generation, American politics was conducted on essentially Reaganite terms, with Jimmy Carter–signed tax cuts and Bill Clinton declaring that “the era of big government is over.” Trump is arguing that the largest and most rapidly growing domestic spending programs shouldn’t be touched and has even rhetorically committed himself to the premise that the safety net should guarantee quality health insurance for everyone. The problem with his brand of centrist politics is that his numbers don’t add up, but nothing has happened yet that would make that clear to anyone who was predisposed to like him.

Reality bites

Previous Republicans, of course, were aware that cutting entitlement programs was politically risky. They wanted to do it because if you let already-large programs grow, it’s hard to cut taxes, and the GOP’s core view on economic policy is that justice or growth (or both) requires large tax cuts for high-income families.

Trump did not solve this problem so much as ignore it, demonstrating that neither GOP primary voters nor most general election voters really care if politicians’ proposals make sense.

But in office, reality has started to intrude. Trump’s campaign promises to defend Medicaid were made less forcefully than his commitments on Social Security and Medicare, so he’s simply abandoned them — throwing the weight of the White House behind legislation that would cut Medicaid spending by more than a third. His budget proposal also begins walking away from his promise on Social Security by slashing spending on Social Security Disability Insurance, with the Trump Office of Management and Budget retconning the campaign promise to only cover old-age benefits. And rather than the promised legislation to cover everyone with terrific insurance, Trump is proposing less coverage and higher deductibles.

Trump won’t defend his real policies

Critically, on most of these issues the White House isn’t offering a substantive defense of its proposals — it’s just lying about them. The Trump administration’s position is that cutting SSDI isn’t cutting Social Security, that nobody will lose Medicaid benefits even as funding is reduced by 35 percent, and that the Congressional Budget Office is mistaken in some unspecified way about the impact of Trumpcare on the individual health insurance market.

The central reality of this strategy is that it only works if the policies don’t get implemented. If your cousin loses her Medicaid, you’re not going to be tricked into thinking she hasn’t lost it yet. Democrats often seem frustrated that the scales have not already lifted from Trump voters’ eyes, delivering them special election victories in traditionally Republican House seats. But people who’ve been tricked are reluctant to admit it, and unless Trump’s policies get enacted, the thread of deniability still exists.

But the fact remains that Trump, for all his weirdness as a political figure, won in part through some very old-fashioned triangulation — telling cross-pressured voters that he was picking up some of Democrats’ most popular positions just as Bill Clinton poached an idea or two from the GOP in the 1990s.