The storylines coming out of Saturday’s Republican debate in New Hampshire are ‘Revenge of the Governors’ and ‘Marco Rubio’s rough night.’ But a more telling exchange that gets to the heart of what undecided voters in New Hampshire may be thinking – “Is Donald Trump for real?” – was Trump’s response to ABC moderator David Muir’s question about whether he was really a conservative.
TRUMP: Well, I think I am, and to me, I view the word conservative as a derivative I – of – of the word conserve. We want to converse our money. We want to conserve our wealth. We want to conserve. We want to be smart. We want to be smart where we go, where we spend, how we spend. We want to conserve our country. We want to save our country. And we have people that have no idea how to do that and they are not doing it, and it’s a very important word and it’s something I believe in very, very strongly.
Trump’s answer wasn’t wrong or an obvious fumble. It was simply uninspiring and not worthy of his front-runner status. He gave a very Merriam-Websterish answer to a question that will determine whether he can consolidate the Republican Party around his candidacy.
Throughout the campaign Trump has shown that, for him, conservatism is a second language. On Saturday, he didn’t sound like the standard-bearer of a conservative party. Instead, he described conservatism with the sophistication of an exchange student from Denmark who summers in the Hamptons. He knows his dictionary and his words but not necessarily their meaning.
Trump’s answer may have been how conservatives described themselves once: in 1957. But today’s modern conservative movement isn’t a hoarding or protectionist philosophy. Conservatism isn’t about conserving; it’s about growth. It’s not merely about protecting what we have but creating new opportunities. Conservatives believe that we liberate people by limiting government; that when we shift authority to individuals and local communities – the true elites in American society – you see incredible innovation. And that innovation, in civil society and the free enterprise system, doesn’t merely create the “next” Ford, IBM, Apple, or Google but new industries and new engines of growth. That’s what conservatives believe, and that’s a language in which several of our candidates are fluent.
U.S. Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), an emerging star and effective Trump interlocutor on Twitter, provided a far more inspiring answer to Muir’s question when asked the same question by MSNBC’s Chuck Todd. Sasse sounded presidential, or at least vice-presidential. His answer, which is worth 90 seconds of anyone’s time, is a telling contrast to Trump’s Lonely Planet Guide to Conservatism response.
Later in the debate Trump’s conservatism-as-a-second-language limitations came into play when he was discussing health care. He said we have to repeal and replace Obamacare but that we can’t let people die in the streets. But we already have a program for that. It’s called Medicaid, and it doesn’t work very well. Fewer than half of all doctors accept Medicaid patients according to some surveys and outcomes are worse for Medicaid patients than those enrolled in private insurance. In many ways Obamacare is Medicaid plus. So Trump’s plan is to repeal Medicaid plus and replace it with Medicaid plus?
The voters in New Hampshire won’t hear much about this exchange in press reports but they are a very savvy and sophisticated group. Just as Iowa changed the shape of the race and challenged the conventional wisdom, New Hampshire voters are poised to do the same. We’re about to learn more about whether Trump is real enough to lead the way.
John Hart is Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.