Concerns Rise Over Trump Fealty to GOP Agenda

Concerns Rise Over Trump Fealty to GOP Agenda
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As the GOP nominee, Donald Trump will lead a political party with which he has at times dissented on numerous fundamental tenets, from tariffs and trade to foreign policy and abortion.

His comments this week about tax increases and the minimum wage have renewed some concerns within the party about how Trump will carry its flag for the next several months, and whether he will interfere with the shape of the GOP platform.

Presidential nominees aren’t always in lockstep with the base of their party, and tend to leave the official platform to delegates and party activists while the candidate transitions out of the primary contest and into a general election in ways intended to broaden support. The official platform is a non-binding set of principles developed by a committee and voted on by delegates at the national convention.

The planks have  traditionally been a way for social conservatives to flex their muscles--and often have little impact on the nominee’s positions: Bob Dole acknowledged in 1996 that he didn’t even read the whole platform, and publicly rejected immigration and abortion provisions he deemed to be too conservative.

But the concern with Trump isn’t so much about his differences as it is with his inconsistencies and at times undefined positions. The presumptive Republican nominee prides himself on being “flexible,” a trait that carries appeal among many voters but that creates some anxiety among party leaders hoping to forge consensus on an overall agenda.

“For the Republican Party, it’s very important to get the platform right and hold on to the conservative gains in the document,” says Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union. “How Donald Trump handles the platform will send a very loud statement to conservatives, especially those who have not yet endorsed him. It’s important, symbolic and a big step that Trump needs to get right.”

The broader GOP general election agenda figures to be center stage at a highly anticipated meeting Thursday between Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in Washington. Such a summit would be commonplace in any other election year, but the two party leaders are at explicit and almost unprecedented odds with Trump over policy, including Medicare and Social Security reforms, free trade deals, religious rights, international presence, immigration and deportation.

The chasm between them on the issues is so wide that Ryan said last week he is not ready to support Trump. On Monday, Ryan said he would give up his role as convention chair if Trump wanted him to. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Ryan acknowledged party unity may take a while to achieve. 

“We shouldn’t just pretend our party is unified when we know it is not,” the Wisconsin congressman said. “We can’t fake it, we can’t pretend. We have to actually unify.” 

Trump's convention manager, Paul Manafort, has been making the case this week that GOP primary voters have approved Trump's approach, not necessarily that of party leaders. 

The billionaire businessman will also meet Thursday with Senate leaders Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, and Roy Blunt, the latter of whom faces a tough re-election fight in his home state of Missouri this year.

The meetings will be at the center of the political universe this week, as the party and its presumptive nominee try to reconcile themselves to one another and find an agenda that works not only for the White House race but for congressional contests across the country.

“Trump has said some things that are pretty outside the box in terms of Republican orthodoxy, which is fine to a point,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has said he won’t attend the convention or support Trump. But the meetings are necessary in order “to make sure this is an agenda he can support.”

“The contradictions are just overwhelming to me,” Graham said, noting foreign policy in particular: “He talks like Ronald Reagan one moment, then embraces [Vladimir] Putin the next.”

Trumpf has a full plate in front of him, including planning the programming for the convention, forming and developing policy teams, and picking a running mate, among other things. Priebus has encouraged Trump to leave the platform alone.

And Priebus believes he will. “Donald Trump is not wanting to rewrite the platform. So all that anxiety, just take it off the table,” the RNC chairman said on the Mike Gallagher radio program this week. “But [Trump needs to] get into that, tell people that, that you don’t want to rewrite; you appreciate and agree with the platform the way it is.”

It’s not yet clear how much the real estate tycoon plans to focus on the platform, and strategists note that other matters are likely to take precedence for him.

"Trump may want to make a point about minimum wage or Cuba or the wall or one of the things he has broken from orthodoxy on and gotten a hell of a lot of votes" on, says one veteran GOP strategist. "But I’d be more worried about putting my imprint on the convention so it looks and feels like Donald Trump and a new day for the Republican Party.”

Trump raised eyebrows earlier this week when he said he would be open to raising the minimum wage, though he’d prefer it be done by the states, and suggested imposing higher taxes on the wealthy, though he clarified that he meant higher than his original proposal. He has railed against free-trade agreements and has argued against making changes to entitlement programs. He has also advocated scaling back U.S. interventions abroad.

But on other issues, Trump is aligned the GOP base. Exit polling during the primaries has found a majority of Republicans agree with his push for a Muslim ban, for example. His approach to immigration has also been well received. But there are concerns from some about his stance on abortion.

Last month, Trump said he would change the GOP platform to explicitly allow abortion exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother, provisions most past nominees have agreed with. But he also caused a stir by saying women who have illegal abortions should be punished -- before rescinding the statement amid harsh reaction to it.

GOP rivals have charged him with being inconsistent on the issue, reviving a clip of him touting his abortion-rights credentials.

And Ted Cruz pounced on Trump suggesting transgendered people should be able to use whatever bathroom they choose, an issue brought to the fore by a controversial North Carolina law that has become a hot button among some conservatives.

Cruz is likely to seek an influential role in shaping the Republican platform. The New York Times reported that Cruz adviser Ken Cuccinelli is wrangling delegates to take control of the platform committee.

A small staff is working on this year’s platform, building on the 2012 version and receiving input from delegates, party officials and leaders, as well as Trump's campaign. The official platform committee, made up of convention delegates who are GOP activists and leaders, will meet the week of July 11 to finalize the document before presenting it to the full convention the following week. It must then be approved by the convention.

It’s not clear yet how involved Trump will be in shaping the platform. Traditional campaigns have, by this point, fleshed out most of their policy points. But Trump is taking a different route.

“There wasn't a lot of policy debate throughout the first stage” of the campaign, said Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee who has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick. “What primary voters decided was they wanted a strong personality, they wanted someone who was irreverent. And so now he's the nominee. What I sense is happening is now the campaign is going into a second phase where they're spending a great deal of time talking more deeply about policy prescriptions and working on platforms and all of that.”

While many senators are still reluctant to endorse Trump, few seemed concerned at this point that he will push for drastic platform changes. “You've got to keep in mind that the party works all the way up through the national convention. They have their resolutions and there is an obligation to be coordinated with those resolutions,” said Sen. James Inhofe, who originally supported Marco Rubio. “He's going to do what inures to his benefit as well as what inures to his job’s benefit."

Congressional correspondent James Arkin contributed to this report.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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