It’s a heresy on the right to admit that Trump has run a bad campaign. Not even a landslide defeat next week will completely wear away the taboo against saying so, as the urge in the aftermath to shift blame from Trump to others will be intense. Few Republican pols will go on record about it. Trump’s voters are their voters, after all, and their voters will remember if they refuse to join in the scapegoating effort.

But Trump has run a very bad campaign, both in terms of spending and messaging. Many, many, many GOPers will eagerly admit that to the media next week if the polls hold — anonymously, of course. You should watch this clip of Cruz in that context, bearing in mind that he rarely risks getting crosswise with populists. For him to utter a note of dissent on the Hunter Biden story at a moment when Trump and MAGA media are all-in on the claim that this is the biggest! scandal! ever! (sorry, second-biggest) is remarkable, and smoking-gun evidence that Cruz thinks Trump is headed for defeat.

It’s not the same as saying “Trump ran a terrible campaign,” but once the “Trump ran a terrible campaign” admissions begin, the foolish obsession with Hunter Biden identified here by Cruz will be Exhibit A in that case. It’s already begun in parts of the righty commentariat.

“Almost every Republican I’ve talked to concurs with Cruz,” said National Journal reporter Matt Holt in response to the clip. There may be a moment in December or January after the smoke clears and the high partisan fever caused by elections cools that righties will reflect on the “Hunter’s laptop” closing argument and realize that it was insane that Trump wasted time on it. The insanity mainly has to do with opportunity costs, but it’s insane on the merits too. Voters were supposed to turn against Joe Biden because he allegedly entertained doing business in China in 2017 — after he’d left office? At a moment when Trump himself had a bank account in China? And had made millions of dollars in China *while* president?

They were supposed to prefer Trump to Biden on what’s essentially character grounds?

New from YouGov and Yahoo News:

The problem for the president is that by an 11-point margin, independents also say Trump and his family are more “corrupt” (50 percent) than Biden and his family (39 percent) — a view shared by the majority of registered voters (53 percent to 39 percent)…

Asked directly whether they think Joe Biden and his family are corrupt, 47 percent of registered voters say no. Just 40 percent say yes.

Asked the same question about Trump and his family, 55 percent of registered voters say yes. Just 35 percent say no.

Trump spending the final days of the campaign trying to make the election a referendum on corruption would be like Biden spending the final days of the campaign trying to make it a referendum on early dementia.

The obvious strategy for Trump this year was to focus on policy, policy, policy. Forget the personal attacks. It’s been clear from the start that voters didn’t dislike Joe Biden personally to the degree they did Hillary Clinton. In fact, possibly due to the personality contrast with Trump, Biden is actually viewed more favorably now in some polls than he was at the start of the race, an unusual trend given that candidates are usually torn down by their opponents over the course of a campaign. Trump should have tried to minimize his character liabilities by refocusing voters on results instead. Who delivered a stellar pre-pandemic economy? Who took out al-Baghdadi and Soleimani while avoiding new wars? Who’s negotiated a rapprochement between Israel and the Sunnis of the Middle East? Who appointed not one, not two, but three exemplary conservative justices?

Who cares about tweets when you’ve got a record like that? That was Trump’s pitch in April, ripe for the taking. Had he paired that with a sensible “safety first” approach to COVID at the same time, I think he’d be favored to win next week. Instead he embraced what RCP’s Peder Zane aptly describes as a “baffling” strategy.

As an everybody else, I am also mystified by the case he is not making for his reelection. Start with the economy. At every turn he makes the over-the-top claim that he had built “the greatest economy” in our history before the pandemic and that he has been the best president for African Americans except, perhaps, for Lincoln. If I were running his campaign, I would downplay such debatable claims and bear down on the data that shows how his approach of lower taxes and less regulation has delivered gains to the very groups Democrats say they represent and always disappoint: the middle class and people of color…

I would hammer home the point that the Obama/Biden administration’s leading-from-behind strategy that emphasized accommodation did little to counter the expansionist policies of China and Russia – remember Obama’s dismissal of Mitt Romney’s 2012 claim that Russia was our greatest geopolitical threat? Remember Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014? Trump, by contrast, has actively sought to limit both countries through tariffs and sanctions while forcefully making the Reaganesque argument that they are bad actors on the world stage. In that regard, I would observe that while Democrats claim Trump embraces authoritarian regimes, it was Obama/Biden that sought to prop up dictators in Venezuela and Cuba.

In every speech I would repeat the observation of Obama’s former Defense Secretary Robert Gates that Biden has “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

Trump does hit those notes periodically, but as Zane says, he never really bears down on them. You can tell what sort of attacks appeal to him by how enthusiastic he gets about them on the stump, just like you can always tell whom he regards with sincere contempt by the zealousness with which he denounces them. (Ilhan Omar yes, the Proud Boys and alt-righters no.) If you want him to bear down on a political message, you have to give him something he can make personal. Biden has dementia. His son is a crooked crackhead. They’re wrapped up in shady business in China and Ukraine. He craves sleaze, which worked out stupendously for him against a dubious figure like Hillary Clinton. It’s not working out as well against a less dubious one in Biden.

I’m sure his advisors have made that point to him ad nauseam, hoping to steer him around to a more consistent winning message, but to no avail. He’ll always be that guy whispering to the National Enquirer, planting hit pieces on his enemies. Doesn’t matter if they’re true or not. The point of gaslighting is to simply raise suspicion.

But if you’re going to gaslight, you don’t do it on a subject where you’re even more exposed than your enemy is.

I wonder if Cruz’s surprising willingness to criticize Trump’s strategy is a product of his own resentment about Trump’s dirty tactics. No Republican was smeared by Trump in 2016 as aggressively as he was, with the pro-Trump Enquirer first accusing him of having had multiple affairs with staffers and later insinuating that Cruz’s father might have been a co-conspirator in the Kennedy assassination. It was outlandish, disgraceful nonsense, but it may have helped: The sort of people who went on to embrace QAnon a few years later may have absorbed stuff like that more credulously than the rest of the population. He’d never, ever admit it lest he jeopardize his 2024 chances but I bet Cruz is enjoying watching a dubious eleventh-hour Trump hit on Biden fall flat. It’ll be interesting to watch him negotiate the politics of spinning the president’s defeat, if in fact we’re headed for one next week.

But until then, MAGA media must stay the course. Yes, the Hunter Biden laptop story is huge, and yes, it’s an absolute gamechanger that portends a Trump landslide if only its details can be further corroborated. Trump’s strategic instincts are unerring. Tell ’em, Newt.