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Is Donald Trump following Bill Clinton's playbook from 1992?

What the heck is Donald Trump doing?!?

Even Trump's most loyal supporters must have had that thought more than a few times. Whether you're a liberal, conservative, moderate, or even a political agnostic, it is crystal clear that Trump has veered way off the accepted partisan and ideological script. Even over the last few weeks, Trump has flip-flopped on key issues. He's been all over the map on taxes, debt, abortion and trade deals, leading many political observers to believe that he has no political ideology or philosophy at all. In this era of overly financed, produced, and managed campaigns we may be seeing the first-ever stream of consciousness presidential run.

Bill Clinton campaigning in 1992 and Donald Trump.
Visions of America | UIG | Getty Images; Getty Images
Bill Clinton campaigning in 1992 and Donald Trump.

Trump's undisciplined approach is costing him the support of many in the GOP faithful. Former presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush and former Governor Jeb Bush won't support him. House Speaker Paul Ryan still hasn't agreed to support him. Lifetime Republican strategist Mary Matalin is leaving the party in Trump's wake. The list goes on.

But while Trump may be without any discernible political ethos, his approach to this election is apparently clinging to one consistent strategy: Embrace the unexpected and the supposedly unacceptable to shatter the Republican Party's brand and shake up the electoral math that's been in place for almost a generation. He's doing it because the last handful of presidential elections has convinced him that the GOP's brand is a losing one that indeed needs to be destroyed. And in so doing Trump is following in the very successful footsteps of another presidential candidate who changed his party's brand. That candidate was Bill Clinton.


In 1992 the Democrats had lost five of the previous six presidential elections, four by crushing landslides. Clinton understood that something had to change; he couldn't run as just another liberal Democrat raging against the Reagan/conservative movement machine. Thus, his 1992 campaign was marked by three specific moments that sent a clear message that the Arkansas governor was a new kind of Democrat.

First, Clinton famously made a public comment slamming a black female rapper named Sister Souljah and the Rev. Jesse Jackson for associating with her. The "Sister Souljah Moment" grew out of a comment she made about black-on-black crime and how maybe black people should kill white people for a week instead.

The comment was taken out of context, but Clinton's sharp criticism of her resonated with many moderate voters who were put off by the prominent role Rev. Jackson played in the 1984 and 1988 Democratic conventions. It showed that the Democrats under Mr. Clinton would stop pandering to him and helped him clinch the nomination.

Once he did secure that nomination, Clinton's campaign made a big show of emphasizing just how strongly he supported the death penalty. That put him in sharp contrast to the 1988 Democratic Party nominee Michael Dukakis, who famously could not even publicly commit to supporting the death penalty when asked in a debate about a hypothetical case where his own wife Kitty were raped and murdered.

Finally, the Clinton campaign distributed plenty of video of the nominee using firearms on hunting excursions. Those images didn't win an NRA endorsement, but they went a long way toward proving to the voters that this Democrat was not a radical "gun grabber."

All of the above were just enough to give Mr. Clinton 43 percent of the vote in a three-man race in 1992 and send him to the White House. But people forget that there were some elites within the Democratic Party who were not comfortable with Clinton's pivot from party orthodoxy in place since at least 1972. But thanks to all those blowout presidential election losses, those ruffled elites were in a decided minority.





Enter Donald Trump in 2016. His Republican Party has lost four of the last six presidential elections, (and five of the last six in the popular vote). While none of the losses was a landslide, the electoral map and demographic numbers seem decidedly stacked against the GOP in presidential races. To shake up the party, Trump's entire campaign has been a series of Sister Souljah-style comments adding up to his own version of "Sister Souljah Moments."

By going against GOP orthodoxy, Trump has presented himself as a new kind of Republican to the voters. His sharp words about illegal immigrants from Mexico tell voters that he really will tackle immigration reform. His comments about barring all Muslims immigrants and tourists signal he is serious about terrorism. Favoring higher taxes on the rich and a higher minimum wage, helps broaden the party's appeal to moderates and Democrats.

And while Trump has disparaged Obamacare, he hasn't come out against the idea of nationalized healthcare either. None of his positions make any sense from a Republican presidential candidate. But Trump isn't looking to build a cohesive platform as much as he's trying to destroy what he sees as conservative political packaging that no longer resonates with voters. Trump's delivery is not as well produced as Bill Clinton's from 24 years ago. But it has nonetheless helped him clinch the GOP nomination.

The problem for Trump going forward is that while Clinton annoyed a small minority of Democrats by tacking right, Trump has turned off a lot more Republicans with his bombast. Speaker Ryan may eventually come around to supporting him, but a significant portion of the GOP base looks like it will sit out the November election. That means Trump will have to win over a lot more moderates and members of the opposing party than Clinton had to in 1992. Trump has defied a lot of odds so far, but just about every national poll says he won't be able to overcome that final massive hurdle.

Regardless what happens in November, Trump has at least shaken up the GOP and will likely impact its approach going forward. Perhaps the fact that the recent election losses have been close has kept the party's messaging stale in the hopes that a little luck would get it back to its winning ways. But the drubbing Trump has handed the old line conservatives in the primaries should do the same trick that a series of November general election landslides could have done. It doesn't mean the GOP should adopt Trump's divisive messages, but it does mean it needs to do a serious and convincing reboot.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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