By bashing conservatives Trump is making this historic mistake

President Donald Trump
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President Donald Trump

What is it about conservatives that so many Republican presidents don't understand? Why don't they get that cultivating conservative support, and selling conservative ideas to the general public is the only way they can weather the political storm and actually govern? And why do all of them, other than Ronald Reagan, keep making the same "betray the base" mistake?

President Donald Trump is making that mistake right now as he declares war on the handful of House Republicans who doomed the GOP Obamacare replacement bill. Last night he singled out three of those Representatives in particular:

But that's nothing compared to what White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer did earlier on Thursday when he hinted the president may campaign against Freedom Caucus members in the 2018 primary elections.

If President Trump continues on this path, he'll have a new enemy to contend with called "history." Because history shows that when Republican presidents turn on conservatives and conservative ideals, they end up failing badly.

The reason is simple: the Republican base is still overwhelmingly conservative. A Republican president can certainly earn some political capital by seeking more moderate supporters when good opportunities arise, like with the nomination of the highly respected and liked Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. But when they support more liberal causes or policies, they usually sacrifice their base of support and almost never get a shred of backing from those moderates in return. Worse yet, these moves almost always leave the country in worse overall shape.

The best examples of this kind of failure were produced by President Richard Nixon, who expanded the Democratic Party's "Great Society" welfare programs, boosted the size of government with new agencies like the EPA, and—worst of all—raised taxes. But none of those fence-mending/coalition-building initiatives worked to gain Nixon any real bipartisan support in Washington, evidenced most clearly by the spirited efforts to impeach and eventually force his resignation during the long Watergate scandal. And by the time he did step down, Nixon's economic policies had worsened the stifling economic woes of the 1970s.

Less extreme, but still serious, is the case of President George H.W. Bush. Bush broke his promise to never raise taxes and backed a Democrat tax hike that plunged the nation into the recession of 1991 and helped push him out of office a year later. Gerald Ford suffered the same re-election failure after pursuing dovish policies with the Soviet Union and waffling on tax policy. Even the enormously popular Dwight Eisenhower helped doom his own party to midterm election failures in the 1950s and general election failure in 1960 after his high tax policies produced multiple recessions.

"While President Trump doesn't need to let the Freedom Caucus members do the talking for him, he should be seeking their advice before he so brazenly and publicly demands their support."

By contrast, Ronald Reagan proved that sticking to conservative principles of lower taxes, strong defense, and convincing Democrats to adopt his ideas, were better for the country and the GOP's own political well being.

Just to advance this historical case further, Democrats in the White House historically succeed politically and the nation also benefits when those Democrats move past their liberal base in favor of adopting more conservative economic policies. President John F. Kennedy was perhaps the first to prove this when he began promoting a massive tax cut policy in 1962. The immediate result was his Democratic Party gained four seats in the Senate in the 1962 midterms. The long term result was massive gains in U.S. economic growth in the following years. President Bill Clinton enjoyed re-election success in 1996 and boosted the economy after he joined with Republicans in 1994 and 1995 to cut capital gains taxes and reform welfare.

Yet here we stand in early 2017, witnessing another Republican president pursuing a decidedly non-conservative health bill packed with more subsidies and spending. Why? Perhaps Trump can be excused for making this mistake because he handily defeated so many establishment and conservative Republican candidates in the primaries. It must be tempting to think the Trump movement proves that non-conservative thinking is no longer a deal breaker among the GOP voter base. And the general election victories candidate Trump won in states behind the "blue wall" like Michigan and Pennsylvania might look like evidence that a more moderate Republican voice can work politically.

This is a misconception, and Reagan is again the source for understanding why. Reagan also swept those blue collar states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and many more by convincing those so-called "Reagan Democrats" to back him. He did it not by pushing big spending bills or other non-conservative policies. He did it by speaking conservatism in their own blue collar language in a way no Wall Street banker ever could. Ronald Reagan the candidate didn't say the same exact "America First" words that President Trump does, but he mined the same desire for renewed American manufacturing strength and economic pride across all income levels. Trump spoke that language during the primaries and the general election. It got him elected.

But now that he must govern, talking won't be enough. No amount of Trump tweets about how great the crony capitalist nightmare the GOP health bill truly is will make it any more popular or effective. While President Trump doesn't need to let the Freedom Caucus members do the talking for him, he should be seeking their advice before he so brazenly and publicly demands their support. The White House needs to learn this historic lesson fast before it makes the same mistakes with its upcoming tax reform efforts.

That's the recipe for a successful presidency, and more importantly, a successful economy.

Commentary by Jake Novak, senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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