Trump Should Run More Like Nixon Did (I’m Not Kidding)

If familiarity breeds contempt, Donald Trump is a glutton for punishment.

The former guy’s presidential announcement (coming just one week after his hand-picked candidates underperformed in the 2022 midterms) occurred earlier in the cycle than most recent candidates. But this deserves an asterisk: The earliest announcers (think former Maryland Rep. John Delaney) are usually hoping to catch fire—not keep their flame from being snuffed out.

Times change, but Bill Clinton didn’t formally announce his presidential candidacy until Oct. 3, 1991. At the time, Clinton was the fifth major candidate to enter the Democratic primary. Trump is almost eleven months ahead of Clinton. And Clinton, then a fairly obscure governor of Arkansas, had significantly more work to do.

As National Review’s Jim Geraghty writes, “…everybody in America already knows what they think of [Trump], and it’s not likely that many Americans are inclined to change their minds.”

But is there a downside to jumping in too soon? When making strategic decisions such as when to announce, it helps to look at past examples. The 1968 Republican presidential primary is the model that best demonstrates the potential perils of Trump’s premature announcement.

In his book The Greatest Comeback, Pat Buchanan recalls how Richard Nixon resurrected his career after losing bids for the presidency in 1960 and the California governorship in 1962. The first step was campaigning for conservative Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964, and then helping Republican congressional candidates win 47 seats in the 1966 midterms. (The GOP’s colossal midterm victory that year stands in stark contrast to 2022’s lukewarm results.)

But wait! There’s more: Nixon built bridges. He humbled himself by going out of his way to support Republican establishment rivals like Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits in New York. “What [Nixon] showed there,” Buchanan told me in 2014, was “a willingness to let these wounds [heal] and these bygones be bygones in the interest of winning an election for the GOP—and winning a nomination for himself.”

More to the point, though, was Nixon’s decision not to enter the 1968 presidential race immediately after the successful 1966 midterms. Instead, he let Michigan Gov. George Romney run unchallenged for a while.

As Buchanan told me, Nixon went on the Sunday shows and announced “a six-month moratorium from politics.” His thinking, Buchanan said, was that the midterms had been a great victory, and “…do we really want to go out there and start tramping through the primaries and all of these states and basically take the bloom off of the rose—or do you want to step back out of the limelight and [use an] ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ sort of approach?”

It is all the more ironic that DeSantis, and not Trump—a politician who has borrowed so much from Nixon and Buchanan—is following in the footsteps of Tricky Dick and Pitchfork Pat.

Buchanan admits that he was worried about Nixon’s passive strategy. “Is it really wise to cede the field to Romney and lock ourselves into a six-month moratorium with no flexibility,” Buchanan (writing in his book) recalls asking Nixon. To which Nixon responded: “Let ‘em chew on [Romney] for a little while.”

Nixon’s point was that the media would tear down Romney. And his strategy worked! “The new year would prove an annus horribilis for the governor of Michigan,” Buchanan writes.

Trump’s potential success in the GOP primary isn’t as contingent on positive news coverage, and he is not as susceptible to negative coverage. On the other hand, the public’s attention span has only gotten shorter since 1968. While Trump doesn’t have to worry as much about media coverage, he does have to worry about being perceived as boring and senile.

To this point, Buchanan writes that Nixon knew “…if he started out on a presidential campaign in 1967, even as an unannounced candidate… the press and public would tire of him and begin looking about for the ‘fresh face.’ Thus he would back away and not appear center stage as a candidate until more than a year later.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seems to be taking Nixon’s “fresh face” approach in this analogy. If and when he makes a presidential announcement, he will have the benefit of being new and exciting.

So why did Trump do this? Trump’s early announcement (which went against his staff’s recommendation) doesn’t make much sense unless you factor in his insatiable desire for attention, his incredible defensiveness over the success of rival Florida Gov. “Ron DeSanctimonious,” and the possibility that becoming an official candidate makes it less likely he will be indicted.

None of these reasons directly correlate with the strategically sound, smart, or rational things you would do if your main objective is winning the presidency.

Someone on Trump’s team seems to know this. “The best thing for DeSantis is [that] Trump gets in, DeSantis stays out for a while, and Trump runs a race against himself for the next six months,” an unnamed source close to Trump told Axios. The source also said (before Trump’s announcement) that “the worst thing for DeSantis’ prospective presidential campaign would be for Trump to delay running, because DeSantis would then become the de-facto frontrunner and everyone would go after him.”

Nixon’s strategic patience turned out to be brilliant.

It is all the more ironic that DeSantis, and not Trump—a politician who has borrowed so much from Nixon and Buchanan—is following in the footsteps of Tricky Dick and Pitchfork Pat. Then again, it’s no surprise that Trump, who (like the Bourbon Kings) has “learned nothing and forgot nothing” wouldn’t be keen on studying (and learning from) history.

Buchanan’s book is called The Greatest Comeback. But if Donald Trump miraculously wins the Republican nomination a third time, that title might just belong to him. Otherwise, this failure to launch could make him The Biggest Loser.

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