Heading into tonight’s debates the theme for the evening has already been set by the media, along with everyone else who has been hoping that a giant sinkhole would open up and swallow Donald Trump like some sort of low rent Mothra in a budget Godzilla film. This narrative rests on the assumption that the video of Trump’s now infamous Bus Ride with Billy was the straw that broke the camel’s back and “everyone is fleeing the sinking ship.” Over at The Hill they’re keeping a running WHIP list of politicians who are pulling their support for the nominee. Less mentioned is the fact that these are mostly people who opposed Trump from the beginning and only came onboard when he began exceeding expectations in the polls.
So are these The End Days which everyone has been predicting? I wouldn’t be quite so hasty in nailing the coffin shut. Once the initial shock and awe has worn off you may find that those seeking to undermine Trump’s campaign have badly misplayed what could have been a winning hand. If the cable news authorities were going to quote any classic rock lyrics to script this moment it would be Jim Morrison singing about how This Is The End. But while the video was certainly a damaging broadside to the Trump campaign, the way this was handled was very possibly bungled. What could have really been the end of the line for The Donald may have been fumbled to the point where he has a path to recovery. There are three factors which may support this idea that I’d like to cover.
First. Voters want to be informed but they are frequently tuned off by the perception of dirty tricks.
It doesn’t take a genius in political history to suspect that something smells funny with the timing of the release of this story. First there is the issue of how this latest outrage arrived on the stage. Since there clearly won’t be any admissions regarding how we really reached this point, voters are expected to stick with the current media explanation. The story goes that it showed up by happenstance when someone happened to discover the video on the “dusty shelves of NBC’s Access Hollywood archives.” (A show which has literally been on the air for twenty years.)
Let’s think about that explanation for a moment. We’ve undergone an arc of political history where:
- Trump was seriously talking about running for President from the early winter of 2014 until June 2015
- Trump officially enters the race in June of 2015 and campaigns, rising in the polls through the end of the year
- In February of 2016 Trump takes second in one caucus, then goes on to win a string of victories where he’s the delegate leader through the spring
- By June of 2016, he’s essentially locked up the nomination and his competition largely folds
- By August the conventions have passed and Trump is the official nominee facing Hillary Clinton, though lagging in the polls a bit
- By September Trump is rebounding the polls and is looking like a serious threat to win the election
Now we are expected to believe that only then, after nearly two years of Trump blossoming on the political stage, somebody at the sprawling behemoth of NBC Universal woke up from a nap during a staff meeting and said, “Hey. Wait a minute, now. Didn’t we have about a bazillion interviews with this Trump fellow on Access Hollywood and other celebrity related programming where he was saying all sorts of goofy and potentially damaging stuff? And didn’t he do the Stern show a million times and talk about all sorts of pornographic, filthy stuff about strippers and what have you? Do you think we still have any of that lying around? Maybe it’s worth taking a look!”
Returning to one of my favorite old sayings… pull the other one. It’s got bells on it.
Second. Timing is everything and the gun went off in Act I
There seems to be universal agreement among cable news spokesmodels that this is the beginning of the end. The video was The Worst Thing Ever and is surely the death of the campaign, but There Is More To Come. It’s all downhill from here.
But is it? I’ve no doubt there’s plenty more waiting to be sprung from the vaults by Hillary Clinton’s supporters. Access Hollywood and other sources are likely sitting on miles of tape, waiting to drop bombs at what they deem auspicious times to keep the conversation away from Hillary Clinton’s many debacles and Wikileaks revelations. But how much worse can the rest of them be?
Unless they’ve actually got The Donald on camera confessing to a triple homicide it’s tough to imagine the rest of the treasure trove being anything other than more variations of what we’ve just seen. Take for example this release from Andrew Kaczynski at CNN. It contains one audio clip after another, mostly from the Howard Stern Show. Plenty of it is bawdy and offensive. Some is downright gross. And it probably would have been considered shocking if we hadn’t just sat through 36 hours of hearing the p***y grabbing story over and over and over again. At this point the quips from Stern’s show about his own daughter “having a nice rack” are just more of the same, if not almost tame by comparison. If the people who have been plotting this scheme all along had been thinking clearly they would have started the car in first gear and worked their way up to drag racing speed before the final debate. They should have started with a clip of Trump saying it was okay to call his daughter “a piece of a**.” Then jump to just the admission of trying to have sex with a married woman. Finally you move to the p***y grabbing material in the home stretch.
As it stand now you’ve already shocked the world. Any additional garrulous speeches on women as sexual objects for men’s gratification is just more of the same at this point.
NARRATOR: Trump said Scandalous, Sexist, Repulsive Thing Number 1!
AUDIENCE: Oh My God! That’s terrible! How could he have been nominated!
NARRATOR: Trump said Scandalous, Sexist, Repulsive Thing Number 2!
AUDIENCE: Oh dear! That’s pretty bad too.
NARRATOR: Trump said Scandalous, Sexist, Repulsive Thing Number 3!
AUDIENCE: Yes. We know. We get it. Wasn’t there something on The Weather Channel about a hurricane?
You get the idea. On to the final point:
Third. You’ve set up Trump for the debate to the point where he’d almost have to try to fail to meet expectations
At this point, how much worse can it get? There is no doubt a “town hall participant” queued up to ask about the tape, assuming the format doesn’t allow for Anderson Cooper or his partner to do the deed themselves. Everyone knows the question already so there’s no gotcha factor. The only mystery is how he’ll answer. Will he go after Bill? That’s the expectation. If he does, he’s deemed to be taking cheap shots, but that’s what was predicted. But what if he doesn’t? What if, rather than going after Bill’s sexual escapades, he just says that it was a different time, that’s not how he sees women and he’s apologized. From there he launches into the recent email revelations about Hillary.
If he does that the conversation about the Billy Bush tape is pretty much done. If Hillary tries to keep bringing it up she comes off as a bitter scold. If the moderators keep banging away on it after Trump acknowledges it and moves on, they poison their own performance by looking like they’re in the tank for Hillary.If they allow multiple audience members to keep bringing it up the question selection bias is obvious and produces the same result.
Can Trump pull off that sort of play? I honestly don’t know, but I wouldn’t exclude the possibility. A lot of professional politicos have been left looking awfully silly after predicting that The Donald couldn’t navigate the minefield of American politics for the last two years. He may just surprise everyone yet again. And if he does, the page is turned we’re back in a serious dogfight for last four weeks. Anderson Cooper would be left with little choice other than to abandon this shiny plaything and hit some policy topics.