Gone was “Lyin’ Ted.” In its place was “Senator Cruz.” Gone was the long-winded speech that went nowhere. In its place was a succinct recitation of states and delegates won. Gone was the two-day vacation as a reward for winning. In its place was an early morning trip to Indiana followed by another planned stop in Maryland.
Donald Trump 2.0 made his official debut Tuesday night following his sweeping victory in New York, a win that looks to net him 90 delegates and reestablishes him as the man to beat in the Republican presidential race.
That version of Trump was markedly more disciplined, gentler and more appealing than the version of Trump we've seen for much of the last year. And, that fact should scare the hell out of establishment Republicans who believed that their efforts to keep Trump from the 1,237 delegates he needs to formally capture the GOP nomination was beginning to catch on.
Why? Because it’s clear, at least for now, that Trump is listening to his new political advisers — chief among them convention manager Paul Manafort and national field director Rick Wiley. Trump’s change in tone on Tuesday night was absolutely unmistakable to anyone who has paid even passing attention to his campaign to date. The man who had built his front-running campaign on a willingness to always and without fail take the race to its lowest common denominator — was suddenly full of respect for the men he beat and full of facts about the state of the race.
“We have won millions of more votes than Senator Cruz, millions and millions of more votes than Governor Kasich,” Trump said. “We’ve won, and now especially after tonight, close to 300 delegates more than Senator Cruz.”
The change in tone is absolutely necessary if Trump wants not only to find a way to 1,237 delegates but also unite the party behind him in any meaningful way heading into the general election campaign this fall. The truth is that Trump has to play an outsider and an insider game from here on out. The outsider game is to keep winning primaries by convincing margins like he did in New York. The insider game is to show unbound delegates as well as party leaders and influencers that he can be magnanimous, that he can be a uniting force within the party.
Calling Cruz “Lyin’ Ted” is a great laugh line at a Trump rally but accusing the Texas senator of holding up the Bible and then putting it down and lying isn’t exactly the sort of rhetoric you need or want from a candidate who needs to bring the party together behind a common enemy in Hillary Clinton. It’s the difference between being voted “class clown” and being elected student body president. The former delights in taking the low road for cheap laughs. (I speak from experience.) The latter takes the high road even if it’s against his or her own natural instincts.
Can Trump keep it up? Discipline on a single night or even a single week is one thing. Discipline over several months amid what will be continued attacks from both Cruz and the “stop Trump” movement is something else. And, listening to your new advisers when they are, well, new is easier than listening to them when it’s been a few months of biting your tongue and fighting back some of your natural attack instincts.
But, Trump has shown — both on Tuesday night and over the past week or so — an ability to rein himself in that suggests he understands that this new and improved version of himself is the one that can actually win the Republican presidential nomination. Be scared, anti-Trump forces. Be very scared.