The constant whining about unfairness in all things, at all times, is part of the reason why Trump’s behind today. Only hardcore political junkies will pay any attention to this letter from Bill Stepien, but it’s in keeping with the endless grousing from the candidate himself about every development that’s unfavorable to him, large or small. For many swing voters, I think, the feeling right now is hour four of a road trip with a cranky child in the backseat. Every parent knows that moment when they’ve reached their limit.
I think the electorate’s reached its limit.
But here’s the thing: Just because the child is cranky doesn’t mean every complaint it has is without merit. Stepien’s right that foreign policy has been given short shrift thus far, although that’s partly because Trump decided he didn’t want to bother with the second “virtual” debate. And Stepien’s certainly right to believe that foreign policy would be a stronger subject for Trump than the current slate of scheduled topics, which includes COVID, race relations, and leadership. That’s a bloodbath in the making for the incumbent. He’d be better off taking it to Biden on his support for the Iraq war, the Iran deal, his far too sanguine view of China’s rise to power, and Trump’s successes in brokering peace deals between Israel and various Arab states. The country deserves a night devoted to foreign policy and Biden deserves to have to answer for his terrible foreign policy instincts.
All I’d say to Stepien in response is this: Trump has been free to draw this contrast since the start of the campaign. A smart, sane candidate would have spent 50 percent of his time since April on the trail discussing the blockbuster economic growth of his first three years in office and the other 50 percent on his foreign-policy successes, starting with the lack of any major new wars and the successful termination of al-Baghdadi and Soleimani. No one’s forcing him to spend his time attacking Fauci or obsessing about Hunter Biden’s laptop or Section 230. All of that is crap geared at pleasing the people who are already committed to voting for him. If he’s suddenly interested in reaching swing voters with a foreign-policy message, why hasn’t he pushed it from the start? Why didn’t he make it a condition of his townhall with NBC last week that the topics be restricted to foreign policy?
From Stepien’s letter:
Good points all, and points that the president is free to make outside the debate context but largely chooses not to.
Which raises a question: Does the campaign truly want the debate commission to change its topics at the last second or is this letter a pretext to … back out of the debate on Thursday? More from the letter:
If the commission says “no, we’re sticking to our plan and letting the moderator cut the mic as needed,” what’s Trump’s and Stepien’s next move? The conventional wisdom is that he desperately needs this debate since it’s his last chance to expose Biden in front of a gigantic audience. But what if Stepien has concluded that the risk outweighs the potential reward?
Unless Stepien thinks Trump would be so bad that debating would lower his comeback odds, even though Trump generally wants high-variance strategies.
It's not crazy: Trump historically loses ground following debates and his messaging has been even more erratic than usual lately.
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) October 19, 2020
Maybe his advisors fear that Trump’s reached a point of such loose-cannon off-message mania that he’s more likely to do himself further damage on Thursday than to hurt Biden. So they came up with this eleventh-hour demand for a foreign-policy showdown, knowing that the commission will probably decline and that they can seize on that as an excuse to bail. They don’t want him saying anything in a big spotlight in front of the few remaining undecideds out there that might alienate them.
Here’s what’s on Drudge as of 5 p.m. ET, as I’m writing this. The message, clearly, is that Trump is off the rails.
Headlines from America. pic.twitter.com/7tsBdgCTo3
— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) October 19, 2020
He did say that reporters were criminal for not reporting more on Hunter Biden’s laptop. He said he wanted Biden locked up too, presumably without probable cause:
President Trump says Joe Biden is lucky that Bill Barr is attorney general "because I know people that would have had him locked up five weeks ago."
— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) October 19, 2020
He also complained that there’s too much reporting about … COVID:
“They are getting tired of the pandemic, aren’t they? You turn on CNN, that’s all they cover. ‘Covid, Covid, Pandemic, Covid, Covid.’ You know why? They’re trying to talk everybody out of voting. People aren’t buying it, CNN, you dumb bastards.” — Trump pic.twitter.com/QobvMA6Yz0
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 19, 2020
Do even MAGA fans think this is a smart way to finish the campaign? At what point does Trump’s habit of sloppy scattershot attacks bear some blame for the political hole he’s in? Last week it was reported that he might deliver a foreign-policy speech before the election to highlight his achievements, but he could be delivering abridged versions of that message every day at his rallies, to a national cable-news audience. He prefers to ride his hobbyhorses instead. If he loses next month and the “it’s the end of America” freakout starts, remember that he himself didn’t care enough about victory to stick to a message that would maximize his chances of success. The campaign was more a vehicle for his vanity, to give him a chance to recite his grievances in front of an adoring audience, than a means of persuading reluctant people to vote for him.
I’ll leave you with this from the Biden campaign. If Team Trump is looking for a reason to back out on Thursday, the Democrats will oblige them.
Biden's @TDucklo responds to debate letter
“The campaigns and the Commission agreed months ago that the debate moderator would choose the topics. The Trump campaign is lying about that now because Donald Trump is afraid to face more questions about his disastrous COVID response" https://t.co/cQhjP9RSpj pic.twitter.com/4rNwwnPXuo
— Christopher Cadelago (@ccadelago) October 19, 2020