The latest debate about Donald Trump involves one of journalism’s favorite words: flip-flop.
Did he or didn’t he?
The media consensus is absolutely positively. The campaign says no way.
Let’s put aside semantics for a moment.
During the primaries, cracking down on illegal immigration was Trump’s signature issue, symbolized by the wall-that-Mexico-would-pay-for.
The billionaire eventually insisted that he would deport all 11 million people who are in this country illegally, but that the “good” ones would be able to return.
Trump was pressed repeatedly on this point—from whether it was too harsh to whether it was wildly unrealistic—and insisted in interviews that a deportation force could accomplish the goal.
Now he has changed his language. Don’t take my word for it. Trump says there is a “softening” of his position.
In a town hall with Sean Hannity, Trump said he would follow the law, implying he would be more aggressive about it.
He then solicited the crowd’s view:
“Number one, we'll say throw out. Number two, we work with them. Ready? Number one.”
The crowd cheered.
The crowd cheered louder.
Trump seemed pleased, but added: “They'll pay back taxes. They have to pay taxes. There's no amnesty as such.”
Which means, as numerous commentators have pointed out, his current position is not that different than those of Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush.
But his campaign insists he hasn’t really changed his position.
Kellyanne Conway, his new campaign manager, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper than the nominee’s policy “is that you don’t just look at people and try to harm them or treat them inhumanely…He’s not flip-flopping on immigration, and he wants to find a way--”
“That seems like a flip-flop,” Cooper said.
“A way to execute on his principles, Anderson, without hurting people.”
Spokeswoman Katrina Pierson insisted that “there's not a different message. He's using different words to give that message.”
But it’s more than a linguistic shift. Trump has clearly backed away from the idea of deporting 11 million illegal immigrants. He says he wants to start with the criminals, and booting out criminals is the current policy under the Obama administration.
Now every major-party nominee moves one way in a primary and pivots toward the center in a general election. Hillary Clinton was all for the Pacific trade agreement before she changed her tune in her race against Bernie Sanders.
But no candidate wants to be tagged with the F-F label, as John Kerry famously was with “I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” George H.W. Bush didn’t break his “Read my lips, no new taxes” vow until after the election.
So: If you don’t like Trump, you say he’s flip-flopping. If you like Trump, you say he’s evolving.
If you don’t like Trump, you say he never really believed any of this and is abandoning the stands that won him such a loyal Republican following. If you like Trump, you say he’s showing leadership by consulting with Hispanics and trying to tailor his goals to reality.
What you cannot do is say he’s only modifying his language. Because Trump is now taking a new approach to illegal immigration in an effort to do what all candidates want to do: win an election.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.