In his own unorthodox way, Donald Trump is unmistakably evolving into a general election candidate. The over-the-top billionaire is talking about flexibility in his hardline immigration policies. He's pledging to moderate his bullying tone, acknowledging that women in particular may be turned off by his brash brand of politics. And he's working to assume the mantle of GOP standard-bearer, calling for party unity and promising to help fellow Republicans win their own elections in November.
It was almost exactly four years ago, in mid-March 2012, when Mitt Romney's communications director used one of the cycle's more memorable phrases. With Romney already leading the Republican pack, aide Eric Fehrnstrom was asked if Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich might force the eventual nominee "to tack so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election."
Fehrnstrom responded, "Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all of over again."
At the time, the answer was not well received, at least in part because of Romney's record of changing his positions on practically every issue, sometimes more than once. Fehrnstrom's broader point, however, was hardly ridiculous. Candidates from both parties, over the course of many cycles, have shifted their postures after the primary season as they turn their attention to a general-election audience.
This might even apply to Donald Trump. The Associated Press reported today:
The shift even includes changing the nature of his relationship with the Republican Party establishment. As the Huffington Post noted, during Trump's rambling monologue on Tuesday night, the GOP frontrunner praised House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and boasted about the great phone conversation the two had earlier in the week.
Sounding very much like a man who's slowly realizing that a party's presidential nominee also becomes its de-facto national leader, Trump added, "It's very, very important as a Republican that our senators and our congressmen get re-elected, that we put a good group of people together, that we keep the people that are there. If we are going to be effective, it's very, very important."
If this rhetoric sounds new, that's because it is. Trump has generally blasted the establishment of both parties, telling audiences throughout the campaign that Americans are "governed by idiots."
But now that Trump is the clear favorite to win the Republican nomination, he's shaking the Etch A Sketch.
Whether this is effective as a tactical matter is a very different question. It's a safe bet that GOP insiders will continue to hate Trump, indefinitely, whether his shift to a general-election message is sincere or not. It's also likely that much of the American mainstream, which has developed its own opinions about Trump over the course of several months (if not years), won't shake their first impression of the Republican candidate, even if he starts dialing it down a notch.
But the fact that Trump intends to offer a slightly different version of himself for the rest of the year seems quite likely. He told MSNBC yesterday, for example, "In order to be victorious, frankly, I had to be very tough and I had to be very sharp and smart and nasty. I can see women not liking that. That will change once this is all over."