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No Longer Dismissing ‘The Donald’

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I missed Donald Trump last year. Literally.

Last June 23, the Donald was the headliner at the Maryland Republican Party’s annual Red, White and Blue Dinner. I had planned to attend, but I was recovering from surgery, and a massive summer storm made driving near impossible, so I napped instead.

No great loss, I thought. The New York billionaire real estate tycoon was a flash in the pan, a temporary celebrity who would soon fade. I had even chided state party officials for having “The Donald” at such a prominent event. They told me at the time that they had invited other presidential candidates, but his campaign was the first to reply.

And to their pleasant surprise, the prospect of seeing the Trumpster in the flesh made the June GOP dinner one of the party’s most successful fundraisers in years. People who didn’t agree with him — the mainstream, establishment Republicans, if you will — were scarfing up tables for the event to see the reality TV star in the flesh.

Everyone Was

It’s now easy to admit blowing off Trump because almost every experienced reporter, pundit and pol, campaign consultants and fat-cat donors as well, were all dismissing Trump.

No more. That early dismissal turned to trepidation, than denial (“How could this possibly be?”) and now into stunned acceptance that very possibly this blowhard bully, a man of bombast and insult, is looking more and more like the likely GOP nominee to lead the world’s still reigning superpower, the world’s the largest military and its largest economy. He will “make America great again” — though specifics to come later.

“Trust me,” he said.

Is that my prediction? That seems likely, but I don’t make predictions. As I repeatedly tell those who ask me to predict elections, I have a hard enough time getting the facts straight about things that have already happened, no less accurately predicting the future.

Donald Trump, who has never held any elected office, has beaten a field that included three sitting governors and two former governors, i.e., people who have actually managed large, complicated public enterprises. All but one, Gov. John Kasich, of Ohio, has dropped out. The only GOP presidential candidates left have limited governing experience.

On the Democratic side, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley tried to make the case to Democrats that he was the only presidential candidate who had actually governed with progressive Democratic principles: same-sex marriage, gun control, pro-immigration. He never cracked single digits in polls.

Bernie Sanders, the insurgent candidate on the left, is a democratic socialist who was not a member of the Democratic Party until recently, making him an outsider among the insiders. Like Trump, Bernie Sanders has attracted the angry and the frustrated about low wages, the rigged economy and income inequality. He and Trump share the same positions on several major issues, the Iraq war for instance, foreign trade agreements and the need to replace Obamacare. Their solutions are radically different, but they share similar perspectives on some of the problems.

This presidential primary process taking place in small, unrepresentative states until this month has essentially dismissed almost all the candidates with the relevant professional experience — except for Hillary Clinton, who has one of the best résumés, but is weighed down with excess negative baggage from her long public career.

Hogan as Trump

In some superficial ways, Gov. Larry Hogan is a precursor of Trump the outsider. Both made their fortunes in real estate development, and neither had held elective office before, though Hogan had run for Congress. Both beat more experienced politicians in primaries, both repeated the same simple messages over and over, with little in the way of specifics.

But the comparisons can go only so far. Hogan is not a narcissistic bully, and rarely resorts to insult, though he had a mild dust-up with legislators last month after he said they were like college kids on spring break. He is fundamentally a nice guy and a decent man, which his handling of his lymphatic cancer put amply on display.

Donald Trump is not a nice guy, prone to lash out when crossed.

Hogan has also not flip-flopped politically the way Trump has done. Hogan is a moderately conservative Republican who has steadfastly avoided even commenting on the social issues that have been flash points in GOP presidential debates: abortion, Planned Parenthood, gun control and immigration.

For a Republican governor in a Democratic state, he is enormously popular, as four different polls in the past five months have shown.

Those same polls also show that his policies are in line with a majority of Marylanders on the subjects of fully funding K–12 education this coming year (as the legislature has forced him to do), favoring funding roads over mass transit and supporting an independent commission on congressional redistricting.

Hogan’s occasional anger at the pesky Democratic legislators has won him no friends in the General Assembly, but outside the State House, they have barely made a ripple in public opinion.

Hogan is only a quarter of the way through his four-year term, and much can happen to undermine his approval ratings. Unlike Trump, who likes to stir up anger, to govern well in a Democrat-dominated state, Hogan needs to curb his anger at persistent Democratic obstructionism. He needs to continue to drive his administration slightly to the right of the center of the road — without veering onto the shoulder.