Three times in the last month, President Donald Trump has been asked the most basic question for every president seeking re-election: If voters give you a second term, what will you do with it?
Each time, Trump has struggled to come up with an answer.
When Sean Hannity of Fox News asked Trump to list his priorities, the president couldn’t think of any.
“One of the things that will be really great — you know, the word ‘experience’ is still good,” he said. “I always say talent is more important than experience. I’ve always said that. But the word ‘experience’ is a very important word. It’s a very important meaning.”
It went downhill from there. Trump disclosed that he had visited Washington multiple times but had never slept over until “all of a sudden” he became president. Also, he didn’t know many people here because he’s from New York, but now he knows “everybody” in Washington.
A few days later, another friendly interviewer, Eric Bolling of Sinclair Broadcasting, politely offered a do-over: What will be your focus if voters give you another term?
Trump’s second try was only a little better than the first.
“It’s very simple,” he said. “We’re going to make America great again. We’ve rebuilt the military; we have a ways to go. We’ve done things for the vets like nobody’s ever seen. We can do even more.”
“Economic development, jobs, trade deals,” he added. “We’ve got to bring back manufacturing. We want to build our own ships. So we have a lot of things we can do.”
So, a handful of broad targets — military spending, “things for the vets,” trade deals, manufacturing jobs and ships — but no sign of a program or plan.
In a third interview, with the Wall Street Journal, Trump opted for just one priority.
“It’s really building a strong, powerful economy,” he said.
But again he offered nothing specific — no proposal for how he’d bring the coronavirus-stricken economy back to life and restore the tens of millions of jobs lost since March.
Even some Republicans winced.
“What would Trump do with a second term?” asked Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review. “At the moment, not only does no voter know the answer to that question; Trump himself has no idea.”
Every presidential candidate bungles an interview now and then. But no incumbent has ever whiffed the key question — why are you running? — three times in a row.
So Trump wasn’t just having a bad day. When it comes to policy, he really doesn’t know what he’d do in a second four years. He’s out of ideas, and his staff hasn’t produced any new ones he’d bother to mention.
Yes, he’d like to make the economy stronger — but that’s not a plan.
And yes, he’d keep trying to Make America Great Again — but that’s a slogan on a baseball cap, not a program for governing.
It’s not unprecedented for an incumbent to run without a detailed second-term plan. Ronald Reagan did it in 1984, when his campaign theme was the gauzy “Morning in America.” It was a time of economic recovery and national optimism, and Reagan won in a landslide.
That appears to have been Trump’s plan, too. But with the coronavirus crisis spiraling out of control and the economy staggering, he doesn’t have a Plan B. Rather than provide leadership in the battle against the pandemic, he complains that it has hurt his campaign.
Trump has never shown much interest in the details of governing. His 2016 candidacy and the presidency that followed have been about attitude, not policy.
His first campaign didn’t propose detailed policy goals until 17 days before the election. His current campaign website doesn’t even have an “issues” page; it merely displays a list of actions the White House says Trump has taken.
As president, his central focus was to dethrone the political establishment in both parties and represent his mostly white supporters, the people he calls “the forgotten men and women of our country” in the Culture War. He left legislation to his conservative allies in Congress.
But there may be a second, more surprising reason Trump has run out of ideas: He’s already accomplished most of what he set out to do.
The core of his first-term agenda consisted of five big items: corporate tax cuts, deregulation, a crackdown on immigration, new trade deals and repealing Obamacare. He accomplished the first three, made headway on the fourth and failed on the fifth — not bad for a rookie.
No wonder he’s aggrieved that the coronavirus has robbed him of the credit he thinks he deserves.
So here’s a friendly proposal for the president: Declare victory and retire. He can tell his supporters he’s done most of what he came to Washington to do.
He can turn the Republican nomination over to the successor of his choice — Mike Pence, Jared Kushner or Don Jr. — with instructions to finish the job.
Best of all for a man who loathes being a loser, he can ensure that his record in elections remains forever perfect: one win, no losses.
Doyle McManus is a Washington columnist for the Los Angeles Times and director of the journalism program at Georgetown University.