Trump’s re-election kickoff: The greatest hits and a bit more

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign kick off rally at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, U.S., June 18, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RC1ADE2C1FE0

In the first 45 minutes of Trump’s 90-minute re-election kick off, we got a replay of Trump’s greatest hits. True to form, he began by commenting on the size of the crowd in the vast arena and by insulting the press. Then he spent a long time complaining about the investigations he’d had to endure, his innocence, and how Hillary really should have been the one being investigated. (On cue the audience did a reprise of the 2016 chant “lock her up.”) Then he moved onto his other pre-occupation: the scourge of illegal immigration, the danger it posed to Americans, and how 400 miles of the wall were going to be built (somehow) by the end of next year.

In between and following the familiar Trump rants, however, was the core of a campaign message. It’s not a bad one, and if Trump can ever develop the discipline to get to it before he’s spent nearly an hour obsessing over what awful things have been done to him, he could just win.

Fifty minutes into his speech he moved to talking about the number of people working, the millions of jobs created, the low levels of unemployment among minorities, and reductions in poverty. He bragged about wages rising, the tax cut, and the child tax credit. He talked about the return of manufacturing jobs. He crowed about America’s clean air and water and our energy leadership, and about progress on the opioid crisis. He attributed these strong economic numbers to a record-breaking regulatory reduction campaign, to the tax cuts, and to reversing “decades of calamitous trade policies.”

Mr. Trump reminded the crowd of the number of judges he has appointed—an accomplishment that will, no doubt, allow some Republican voters who might be appalled at Trump’s behavior to hold their noses and vote for him again. And he praised Congress for getting Americans out from under the universal mandate in Obamacare.

And he even, at the very end of his speech, laid out an agenda for the future. It included some items that require a suspension of disbelief, such as his pledge to expand affordable health care and make it 60 percent cheaper than Obamacare. He would replace the current immigration laws with a system that admits people on their merits. He would get better trade deals.  He’d advocate school choice, opportunity zones, the right to bear arms, protection against third-term abortions and sending astronauts to Mars.

Somewhere in the middle of his marathon speech, President Trump asked the audience assembled in Orlando, Florida, to vote with their voices on whether they should replace “possibly the greatest theme in the history of politics,” Make America Great Again. The option offered was Keep America Great Again—and it won.

Democrats should worry about this president. Amazingly, he seems to have learned a little something in his first years in office. For instance, he actually recognized and said nice things about his fellow Republicans. And he did manage to return to the teleprompter and deliver what was a pretty coherent message.

The question, of course, is whether the campaign of an incumbent can overcome the mixture of bombast, confusion, and delusion that has characterized his presidency. In the days before his kickoff, he announced that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) would begin deporting millions of illegal immigrants, even though the people over at DHS had no idea what he was talking about. (and my colleagues and I have explained that this is functionally impossible). His acting defense secretary offered his resignation as 1,000 troops were on their way to the Middle East to deal with a crisis the president manufactured by withdrawing from the JCPOA.   This is only the latest in his record-breaking cabinet turnover. And he claimed that his internal campaign polls showed him ahead in every state, only to be contradicted by his campaign pollsters.

Buried in the verboseness and grandiosity of this most egocentric president is a message that has some power to it. He has a unique ability to distract from the real and focus on the ideal. If he can do that in 2020 as he did in 2016, he will be reelected. Otherwise, Democrats have to hope that the chaos of his presidency extends to his re-election campaign and that the voters see beyond the enthusiasm and momentum in Orlando tonight. Unlike challengers, incumbent presidents have to run on what they have done as president. Trump has the core of a decent message on that score—if only he can get his ego out of the way.