Until recently, it would never have occurred to me that Donald Trump and Ted Kennedy had anything in common, at least not when it came to politics. That changed when Trump was asked in a pair of interviews this month what he would do with a second term as president, and both times delivered an incoherent nonanswer. It evoked memories of Kennedy’s bewildered, disjointed reply to CBS News correspondent Roger Mudd when he was asked, in the fall of 1979, why he wanted to be president — a reply that signaled his candidacy was doomed before it even started.
On June 17, Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender interviewed President Trump in the Oval Office. About halfway through the Q&A, Bender posed the why-are-you-running question — a softball any candidate should be able to hit out of the park.
“What would you say is a new priority for the second term?” he asked. “One new initiative.”
Trump said his “new priorities” were “building the economy . . . building a really strong, powerful economy.”
But economic growth is neither a new priority nor an initiative, so Bender tried again: “My question is whether you have a new initiative in mind to reenergize the economy, to bring back jobs . . . in a second term.”
Trump couldn’t answer. Instead he flailed through a rambling complaint about “NAFTA, which was a disaster” and Germany being “delinquent on their NATO payments,” and said that if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, “we would have some additional trade deals that would have been unbelievable.”
A few days later, Trump’s closest media ally, Sean Hannity of Fox News, gave him another chance to answer the question.
“What is one of your top priority items for a second term?” Hannity inquired.
“Well, one of the things that will be really great — you know, the word ‘experience is’ still good,” Trump began, turning to the audience. “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.”
The more he talked, the less he said.
“I never did this before. I never slept over in Washington. I was in Washington, I think, 17 times. All of a sudden I’m the president of the United States — you know the story. I’m riding down Pennsylvania Avenue with our first lady, and I say, ‘This is great.’ But I didn’t know very many people in Washington, it wasn’t my thing. I was from Manhattan, from New York. Now, I know everybody.”
When a candidate can’t give a coherent reason for seeking election, it’s safe to assume he doesn’t have a coherent reason. “As of now,” observed The Wall Street Journal in an editorial last week, “Trump has no second-term agenda, or even a message beyond four more years of himself.”
Similar incoherence bedeviled Kennedy, who was preparing to challenge President Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination when he sat for an interview with Mudd.
“Why do you want to be president?” asked Mudd.
There was a long pause. Then, speaking in a dull monotone, Kennedy began a faltering, aimless reply.
“Well, I’m — uh, were I to make the announcement and to run, the reasons that I would run is because I have a great belief in this country, that it is — has more natural resources than any nation in the world, has the greatest educated population in the world, the greatest technology of any country in the world.”
On and on he went, hesitant and inarticulate.
“And I would basically feel that — that it’s imperative for this country either move forward — that it can’t stand still or otherwise it moves backward. And that leadership for this nation can galvanize a — an effort with a team to try and deal with these problems.”
As Boston Globe journalists later recounted in “Last Lion, The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy,” Kennedy “spoke from a strange bloodless remove.” It was an augury of the campaign to come. Carter was an unpopular, uninspiring Democrat, but Kennedy couldn’t manage to beat him.
To be sure, Trump isn’t Kennedy, and 2020 isn’t 1980. But in any era, presidential candidates who don’t know why they’re running generally don’t get elected. Trump sold himself in 2016 as an apostle of winning. But to Americans today, he increasingly comes off as a loser. If Trump is unable to explain why he wants another term, he shouldn’t expect voters to give him one.