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Trump in Ohio: 'I don't know what that means, a community college'

Trump's rhetoric about community colleges was a striking reminder: he doesn't care much about policies, but he cares a great deal about what policies are called
Desks in a classroom. (Photo by Bob O'Connor/Gallery Stock)
Desks in a classroom.

During Donald Trump's remarks in Ohio yesterday, which were ostensibly supposed to be about infrastructure, the president decided to reflect briefly on education.

As is typical for Trump, the president appeared at several times to veer off his prepared remarks on infrastructure policy to interject with comments perhaps designed to appeal to his audience.''I don't know what that means, a community college,'' Trump said at one point. ''Call it vocational and technical. People know what that means. They don't know what a community college means.''

For those who only heard part of the comments, it may have sounded like Trump didn't know what a community college is. In context, that's not quite right: he was suggesting that the public in general doesn't know what the phrase "community college" means.

I have no idea why the president thinks this; community colleges are actually quite common. They're also not always the same thing as vocational and technical colleges.

The larger point, however, is that Trump doesn't much care about policies, though he cares a great deal about what policies are called.

Last month, for example, he said he wanted "comprehensive" gun reforms, not because of his support for a variety of new measures, but because he likes the word "comprehensive." Before that, during the debate over tax policy, Trump was quite enthusiastic about the name of the legislation (he preferred the "Cut Cut Cut Bill"), even if he was fuzzy about the substantive details.

As we discussed a while back, around the same time, Ttrump referenced something called a border adjustment tax, which some GOP leaders intended to use to help pay for their tax package. “Anytime I hear ‘border adjustment,’ I don’t love it,” the president said.

That led many to believe the White House was, at best, skeptical of the idea, but that wasn’t quite right. Trump was being literal: when he heard the words “border adjustment,” he didn’t like it, not because he doubted the policy on the merits, but because he wasn’t comfortable with the phrase itself.

The same is true on immigration: the president has been at his most animated when making the case against using the word “Dreamers” – not on policy grounds, but because he worries that the word itself has a public relations potency.

The problem even arose during the health care fight. At one point in early March, Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke about the GOP’s proposal, and the president said he had had a problem: Ryan had used the word “buckets” to describe the additional steps of reform that would follow the initial legislation. “I don’t like that word buckets,” Trump reportedly said, preferring “phases.”

The House Speaker obliged, but the anecdote was telling. Trump’s focus was on branding and sales pitches, not substance. As yesterday helped make clear, this hasn’t changed.

Last yaer, Trump boasted at a meeting with business leaders, Trump “I’m good at branding.” That may be true, but is he good at anything else?