8 min read

Trump’s policy-free campaign

Donald Trump is avoiding taking stances on some of the most central questions of the 2024 campaign.
Trump’s policy-free campaign
Donald Trump speaking on health care during his presidency. (Photo by the White House)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, April 3, 2024. Election Day is 216 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Three of the most salient issues in the 2024 election are abortion, health care, and the war in Gaza. The presumptive Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, is refusing to give clear positions on all three.

Let’s take them one at a time, then unpack what it all means.

Trump’s relationship with abortion policy, like his track record on many issues, is long and varied. Before joining the Republican Party, in 1999, he described himself as someone who personally “hate[s] the concept of abortion,” but was nonetheless “very pro-choice” and would never support an abortion ban. (He was considering a run for the Reform Party presidential nod at the time.)

By 2016, as a GOP presidential candidate, Trump had swung to the opposite side of the spectrum, calling for abortion to be banned and even suggesting that women who receive the procedure should be punished. He later backtracked on the punishment question, but as president, consistently promoted pro-life policy and appointed three Supreme Court justices who were crucial to the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.

Now, with Roe out of the picture, Trump has dithered on whether he supports legislation to enforce a national abortion ban. Last September, he said in an interview that he would “sit down with both sides” and negotiate a solution that would bring “peace on that issue,” while also saying it was “probably better” for the issue to be handled at the state level.

By February, though, the New York Times was reporting that Trump was privately warming to the idea of a 16-week national ban (partially because he liked that it was a round number). Last month, he publicly signaled his support for a national ban, revealing that he was “thinking in terms of” a 15-week cut-off.

This week, Trump’s campaign said their candidate is back to believing abortion is a state issue. Here’s what a spokesperson told CNN in response to the Florida Supreme Court’s decision that the state’s November ballot will include an abortion referendum:

“President Trump supports preserving life but has also made clear that he supports states’ rights because he supports the voters’ right to make decisions for themselves.”

The statement managed to avoid answering all the important relevant questions, offering no clarity on how Trump plans to vote on the referendum (he is a Florida citizen, after all), whether he supports Florida’s current abortion law (a six-week ban that he previously criticized), or whether he would support a national ban as president, which he floated just a few weeks ago.

Next up, health care. According to a recent government report, the fund that provides Medicare hospital benefits is set to run out of money by 2031; the fund that provides Social Security retirement benefits is set to run out of money by 2033.

If Congress does not intervene by those deadlines, recipients of the two programs — about half of Americans — will no longer be guaranteed their full benefits. The winner of this election will hold office until 2029, which means he will have a key role to play in addressing this insolvency crisis.

And yet, once again, Trump has flip-flopped several times on his solution. Before running for president, Trump called Social Security a “huge Ponzi scheme” and expressed support for privatizing the program to address the “huge problem” of funding it.

Then, as a 2016 candidate, he made protecting entitlement programs into a key plank of his platform, using it as a wedge issue to separate himself from other GOP candidates. “I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican,” Trump said at the time, “and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid.” As president, however, his budgets routinely proposed Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid cuts.

In this year’s primaries, despite his budget proposals, Trump again bashed his Republican rivals for proposing entitlement cuts — before saying last month “there is a lot you can do in terms of entitlements, in terms of cutting. To make matters more confusing, a spokesperson then said Trump was “talking about cutting waste, not entitlements.”

Trump has similarly contradicted himself on the Affordable Care Act, the law best known as Obamacare. In November, he wrote on Truth Social that he was “seriously looking at alternatives” to the law, bashing the Republican senators who “raised their hands not to terminate it” during his 2017 repeal effort. “It was a low point for the Republican Party, but we should never give up!” Trump said.

Last week, he seemed to change his mind. “I’m not running to terminate the ACA, AS CROOKED JOE BUDEN DISINFORMATES AND MISINFORMATES ALL THE TIME,” Trump said in a new Truth Social post.

Another issue, another muddle of contradictory policy stances.

Finally, the war in Gaza. Trump, of course, hugged Israel — and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu — closely as president. He frequently calls himself the “most pro-Israel president” in U.S. history.

As recently as mid-March, he was bashing those who criticized Israel, charging that all Jews who vote for Democrats “hate Israel” and hate “their religion.” Then, last week, he criticized Israel.

“I think Israel made a very big mistake,” Trump said, referring to its response to the October 7th attacks by Hamas. “I wanted to call [Israel] and say don’t do it. These photos and shots. I mean, moving shots of bombs being dropped into buildings in Gaza. And I said, ‘Oh, that’s a terrible portrait.’ It’s a very bad picture for the world.”

Trump continued, effectively calling for a ceasefire:

“You have to finish up your war. To finish it up. You gotta get it done. And, I am sure you will do that. And we gotta get to peace, we can’t have this going on. And I will say, Israel has to be very careful, because you’re losing a lot of the world, you’re losing a lot of support, you have to finish up, you have to get the job done. And you have to get on to peace, to get on to a normal life for Israel, and for everybody else.”

Soon enough — are you sensing a theme? — Trump’s spokesperson stepped in with a clarification. Karoline Leavitt, a Trump campaign aide, told the New York Times that Trump’s comments had been misinterpreted, adding that he “fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself and eliminate the terrorist threat” although he hopes the country does so “as quickly, decisively and humanely as possible.”

So, to recap, Donald Trump wants to be president (again), but is declining to explain where he stands on some of the most pressing questions that will face him in a second term:

  • Should the U.S. implement a nationwide abortion ban?
  • Are Medicare and Social Security cuts necessary to protect those programs?
  • Should Obamacare be repealed?
  • Should Israel end its campaign in Gaza?

The combination of Trump’s political instincts and lack of firmly held principles is on display here. In several of these cases, you can see Trump trying to steer away from an unpopular policy position, towards safer political ground, and his aides trying to move him closer to traditional Republican Party orthodoxy, creating a mess of confusing positions and statements that end up vaguely splitting the difference.

On Israel, this emphasis on appearance over substance is most clear, as he has quickly turned his back on years of pro-Netanyahu comments not because of any moral split with the prime minister, but because Israel’s aggression creates “photos and shots” that look bad on TV.

Trump is not avoiding positions on every issue, of course. On immigration, for example, he has been strikingly consistent throughout his political career; yesterday, he focused on the issue during stops in Wisconsin and Michigan.

So far, Trump’s strategy of bashing Biden on issues where his rival is unpopular (like immigration and the economy), avoiding issues where he is unpopular, and coasting off of nostalgia for his first term doesn’t seem to be costing him. A series of Wall Street Journal polls released yesterday found Trump leading in six of the seven top battleground states; Trump and Biden were tied in the seventh. Meanwhile, a recent AP/NORC poll found 68% of Americans disapprove of Biden’s border policy, including about 40% of Democrats, 55% of Black adults, and 73% of Hispanic adults.

That this strategy is paying off shouldn’t be too surprising: political scientists have long questioned the degree to which policy plays a role in presidential campaigns, as well as whether “flip-flopping” really hurts political candidates. A 2015 paper by professors David Doherty, Conor Dowling, and Michael Miller found that voters sometimes punish candidates who flip-flop on policy, but on balance, would rather that a candidate flip to agreeing with them on a popular stance then show a principled allegiance to an unpopular stance. They write:

“We also find that, from the perspective of an individual voter, the positive effects of agreeing with a politician’s current position tend to outweigh the negative effects of the politician only having come to that position recently.”

Trump voters certainly doesn’t seem to be too bothered about their candidate’s lack of consistent policy stances. Yesterday, when reporters tried to ask Trump to clarify his positions on Israel and abortion, his supporters drowned out the questions with boos. “We will make a statement next week on abortion,” Trump said, his stock answer when he doesn’t want to answer a question.

With clear costs to going too far in either direction on these issues (Trump can’t afford to lose pro-life evangelicals or pro-Israel Republicans, even as he tries to distance himself from those positions), Trump is trying to have it both ways on many of them — and, so far, it appears to be working.

Biden is doing what he can to tie Trump to the unpopular side of these issues (the Biden campaign released an abortion ad this week), but ultimately, the president seems to be passing on his best opportunity to pin Trump down on the issues: a debate. Trump said yesterday that he would be happy to debate Biden “anytime, anyplace.” Here’s what the Biden campaign said in response:

“Trump said last fall only people who are losing want debates. At least we agree on something.”

But, of course, Trump is not losing, at least not according to the polls. Biden is, and getting Trump on the debate stage would likely be his best shot at making Trump answer policy questions he has avoided all campaign and exposing his flip-flops and unpopular stances. So far, the president does not seem to be jumping at the chance.

More news to know.

NBC: Biden ‘outraged’ by Israeli strike that killed aid workers in Gaza

Politico: Biden and Trump cruised in Tuesday’s primaries. But both showed signs of weakness.

CNN: Special counsel blasts judge’s jury instruction request in Trump documents case

NYT: After Paying Lawyers, Trump’s PAC Is Nearly Broke

Semafor: Trump and Nebraska governor push to deny Biden a crucial electoral vote

The day ahead.

* President Biden will team up with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for an 11 a.m. ET event on their “joint efforts to lower the out-of-pocket cost of inhalers,” according to the Washington Post.

* The Senate is out until April 8. The House is out until April 9.

* The Supreme Court has no oral arguments this week.

Thanks for reading.

I get up each morning to write Wake Up To Politics because I’m committed to offering an independent and reliable news source that helps you navigate our political system and understand what’s going on in government.

The newsletter is completely free and ad-free — but if you appreciate the work that goes into it, here’s how you can help:

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to email me: my inbox is always open.‌‌‌‌

Thanks so much for waking up to politics! Have a great day.‌‌‌‌

— Gabe