Reboot: Parscale out as campaign manager in Team Trump shake-up

Reboot: Parscale out as campaign manager in Team Trump shake-up

Shades of 2016, a panic move, or both? Four years ago, Donald Trump replaced his campaign leadership right after the GOP convention and went on to victory. Now, Trump has to hope that a less dramatic change in direction just before the convention will provide a reset against a more slippery opponent, who seems to be gathering momentum mostly by staying in place.

The writing was on the wall for Brad Parscale ever since the Tulsa rally misread, although most news reports managed to make it sound surprising:

I am pleased to announce that Bill Stepien has been promoted to the role of Trump Campaign Manager. Brad Parscale, who has been with me for a very long time and has led our tremendous digital and data strategies, will remain in that role, while being a Senior Advisor to the campaign. Both were heavily involved in our historic 2016 win, and I look forward to having a big and very important second win together. This one should be a lot easier as our poll numbers are rising fast, the economy is getting better, vaccines and therapeutics will soon be on the way, and Americans want safe streets and communities!

Stepien isn’t well known, and news reports cast him as a “low key” player on Team Trump — low key but not low level. Stepien came out of Chris Christie’s office and played an important role in the 2016 win:

Stepien was the field director for the 2016 campaign and has worked for the president since the election. He’s known for a low-key style and his knowledge of battleground states. He was formerly a top aide to Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

Stepien was expelled from Christie’s orbit in the aftermath of bridge lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 — an episode known as Bridgegate. Widely regarded as the governor’s top political aide, Stepien was not accused of any criminal wrongdoing and made a comeback in 2016 on Trump’s campaign.

Why make this move now? It seems pretty obvious, actually, that the campaign needs to be reinvigorated, if not redirected. The question is whether Stepien can manage either:

The shake-up comes as the Trump campaign struggles to find its footing after national health, economic and racial justice crises have shaken the nation. Recent polls in key swing states such as Arizona, Michigan and Florida have consistently shown Trump losing to Biden, the former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee, this summer. Trump also trailed Biden nationally in two polls released Wednesday — by 15 percentage points in a Quinnipiac University poll and 11 percentage points in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

It’s unclear what the shake-up of campaign staff will achieve given that Trump often acts on his instincts and has shown little interest in taking the steps political strategists say would help him win over undecided voters.

Trump is the campaign in that sense. That hasn’t changed, and it won’t change. (And even if anyone wanted to try to change it, Trump has made his persona too clear for it to succeed.) Parscale and now Stepien didn’t have a job that entailed transforming Trump, but in marketing him. The debacle in Tulsa was a failure of strategy related to that marketing, and that’s why it became clear that Parscale would end up with the blame for it.

At the time, the Trump campaign insisted that the rumors surrounding Parscale weren’t true. They may have just been a little ahead of the curve, as Politico reports that the move first began gaining steam right after the Tulsa flop, and right before the rumor mill began churning:

Parscale has been under the microscope in recent weeks, particularly following Trump’s half-capacity rally in Tulsa, Okla. Parscale was blamed internally for the rally after boasting beforehand that over 1 million people had signed up to attend. In private, the president repeatedly criticized Parscale for the episode. …

Trump began informing advisers of the shakeup Wednesday before making the announcement official. Replacing Parscale had been under consideration for about a month prior to Wednesday’s announcement, people close to the president said.

Senior advisers point out that, unlike past Trump campaign managers, Parscale has been asked to remain on the campaign. Parscale has spent the last decade working for the Trump organization, has been a favorite of the president’s family and was placed in the campaign manager role by Kushner.

That’s a smart choice; Parscale has specific skills that the Trump campaign clearly needs in the data area. It also softens the story somewhat, as a straight-out firing would look more tumultuous and send a different kind of signal.

Will this really change anything? Tactically, it might. Stepien will know better than to put on a major indoor rally, even deep in Trump Country, although Parscale had already shifted away from that. Perhaps some of the messaging might change a bit, too. However, the truth still remains that Trump is the campaign and the campaign is Trump. If the polling plunge of late is real or even close to it, it relates to Trump’s performance in office and not on the campaign trail. To truly recover, Trump needs a lot of wins in public policy, the economy, and especially with COVID-19.

That is the fate of incumbents, whose re-election campaigns are almost always referendums on the status quo rather than about their challengers. Demoting Parscale might have some impact, but it’s not really going to change that dynamic. Everything else is rearranging deckchairs … and hopefully not on the Titanic.

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