It’s probably too easy to regard the two-mile backup I encountered approaching the Beltway yesterday as a metaphor for official Washington. After all, horrendous traffic was a hallmark of the District during the days when bipartisan cooperation wasn’t a punchline. But it did get me thinking about how predictability is embedded in the political mechanics of this city as much as it defines its rush hour traffic patterns. I’m about to spend three weeks meeting with people who have defined roles in the campaign process, from raising money to offering polling advice to shaping campaign messages and creating political ads. Running for office is a process supported by a predictable and well defined system, and everyone involved in the process knows how that system is supposed to operate.
Enter Donald Trump, who spent a highly publicized few hours here last week meeting with Paul Ryan, Reince Priebus and select Republican officials who are struggling with their response to their party’s nominee-in-waiting. Part of Trump’s appeal is that he is not a creature of Washington. He spends very little time here, and he hasn’t shown any indication that he appreciates the process of running for office the way Washingtonians do. Although the most highly publicized aspect of Trump’s Washington summit was about weather conservative elites could convince the candidate to be less ideologically agnostic, in a significant respect it was about schooling him on the sophisticated mechanics of a national campaign. Presidential campaigns are supposed to have message discipline, release position papers and raise money for down ballot candidates. They require more than an ego and a Twitter account.
Still, it’s not clear why anyone would think Trump will change the ad hoc campaign approach that worked so well in the primaries. Trump has given every indication that his campaign will continue to be defined by the candidate, who makes it up as he goes along. Although the Trump effort looks like a real campaign, it has none of the required depth or discipline. So the candidate offers the appearance of giving political speeches when in fact he speaks not about ideas or visions or policies but about himself—about how great he is, how great his poll numbers are, how anyone who criticizes him is a loser. This is not a campaign aimed at being president. It is a campaign aimed at becoming president. It is about winning. Winning and losing. No more, no less. What he would do in office other than build that wall is secondary. What appears to matter most to Trump is winning the presidency so he can prove that he’s a winner. And he appears to believe he knows how to make that happen without accepting outside advise.
Along with Trump’s attitudes and antics, this has to strike fear in those professionals who understand the importance of a highly structured national campaign to success up and down the ballot. The candidate held a few meetings and then left Washington as quickly as he could. There is little reason to believe he is eager to return.