If you enjoyed the last presidential election, you’ll be delighted by the thought that we’re only 20 months away from the next one. Characteristically enough, Donald Trump declared his intention to seek a second term earlier than any previous incumbent, and his campaign is already in what Americans like to call “the staffing up process.” One of the earliest senior appointments is Kayleigh McEnany, the former CNN commentator named earlier this month as the campaign’s national press secretary. I met her last week at the Trump campaign headquarters in Northern Virginia for a discussion you can hear in full in the latest Ashcroft in America podcast.
If candidate Trump’s slogan in 2016 was Make America Great Again, I asked, how far is he going to claim to have achieved that by 2020? “Moving forward, it’s ‘keep America great’.” Last time round “he was on pace to win from the very beginning” because “the conservative base found their hero. They found someone that they found to be authentic, that spoke from the heart, that wasn’t scripted, that wasn’t a mannequin politician.” Since his election, she says, “the results speak for themselves.”
The base is one thing, but my research regularly finds around one third of Trump voters saying they were voting mainly to stop Hillary Clinton. If the Democrats can find a more appealing candidate this time – which ought not to be hard, given her approval ratings at the time – doesn’t that mean he’s in trouble? If they were sceptical at first, she believes, they have been won over: “They recognise that this president has brought jobs back, that he’s brought security to manufacturing, that he’s fought for the American people, he’s fought for the blue-collar worker, and they see those results on the ground.”
McEnany puts the economy, rising wages and falling unemployment at the head of a long list of the President’s achievements. But does that leave him vulnerable if the economic cycle takes a turn for the worse? “I don’t foresee the economy changing at all. The fundamentals of the economy are strong.” Moreover, “business owners know that they have a free-market capitalist in the White House,” a President who will deregulate and allow “uninhibited growth.”
At this stage in the process, most of the interest is on who the Democrats are going to nominate as Trump’s opponent. What kind of person does she think the party is in the mood to choose? “A socialist. It’s pretty clear. You look at the fact that just eight years ago, what the Democratic contenders were saying then versus now and it’s striking. You’ll recall President Obama would say over and over, if you like your health care you can keep it. There is a recognition that there is a place for private insurance. Now you’re hard pressed to find a single candidate who says that – the order of the day is government-run health care… The left is ruling the day, the extreme left and socialism is the order of the day.”
As for what kind of Democratic opponent would give the Trump campaign the toughest job, “I don’t think a single one would… When you’re standing up to results like that there’s not going to be a single Democrat that can go toe to toe with the President. It’s much like back in the Reagan era where Reagan asked voters, are you better off today than you were four years ago. And when that question is asked of voters, the answer is yes.”
While there is the prospect of a high-profile independent candidate in the 2020 race, McEnany argues that his would cause Trump less trouble than his other opponents. “I don’t think it will be a centrist ticket, I think it will be a liberal one. You’ve seen [former Starbucks boss] Howard Shultz come out and say, ‘I can’t stand with this socialist Democratic party’. He’s still a liberal, make no doubt about it, but should they nominate a far-left socialist they’re gonna have a real problem on their hands.”
So if you’re not worried about sceptical voters or your potential opponent, what is the biggest challenge facing the Trump re-election campaign? “Breaking through the filter of the mainstream media.” A study by Harvard University had found “historic negative coverage” during Trump’s first hundred days in office – “there’s so much unfairness, so much false reporting and the President’s not given a fair shake.” The campaign’s job is “making sure the American people have unfiltered access to what the President wants to share with them.” The campaign’s own polling during the State of the Union speech confirmed this. “We saw a double-digit rise in approval among swing voters who just directly watched the President. There’s a lower number for those who watched the media reporting of what the President said. That’s proof to us that our strategy moving forward, the President unfiltered wins the day, at rallies and speeches talking directly to the American people.”
You can hear Lord Ashcroft’s full interview with Kayleigh McEnany in the latest Ashcroft in America podcast.