The uncontrollable candidate
His daughter knew what to say. So did his running mate and his campaign manager. They all knew the question was coming. And the answer was simple: Yes — barring some extraordinary circumstances, such as what happened in the 2000 election, “Of course we’ll accept.” “Absolutely, we will.”
Will what? Abide by the Constitution of the United States. Accept the results certified by the states and then officially by the Electoral College.
The truth is that it doesn’t matter what Donald Trump says. If the states certify Hillary Clinton as the candidate who has won the majority of electoral votes and the Electoral College officially elects her, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts will swear her in as president and every elected official will be on that platform with her.
So why didn’t Donald Trump say on Wednesday what he knew on Tuesday was the answer he should give and was the answer everyone forced him to give on Thursday?
Because, quite clearly, he didn’t want to. He’d spent at least 20 minutes or so “on script,” which means he was acting like a serious and careful candidate for high office and not like a radio talk show host trying to get the lines to light up by saying outrageous things.
And he was clearly sick of it, as you might expect him to be. That is just not who Trump is. He doesn’t listen to anybody. He says what no one else would. He is nicer to Vladimir Putin than he is to Clinton. He says things that aren’t true with total impunity. The facts don’t matter. The fact checkers are all biased, according to him, and if he doesn’t win, it’s because it was rigged. He is a hero to a minority of a minority of Americans who are sick of politicians and pundits and business-as-usual politics, which is certainly understandable. Unfortunately for them, Trump is not their answer.
The most important thing a challenger always has to prove is that he or she is not too big a risk. Lee Atwater, the first President Bush’s campaign manager, used to call it the little boat. If you can’t convince a majority of Americans that you aren’t too big a risk, you can’t win. Ronald Reagan brilliantly met the test in his one and only debate with then-President Jimmy Carter by his appealing and reassuring presence and his brilliant delivery of the two memorable lines from that night: “There you go again” (in response to Carter’s efforts to string together all of Reagan’s misstatements); and “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Election won. If they accomplish nothing else, debates define who could win. And who could not .
Until the first debate, I almost believed Trump could win. That is almost certainly because I had never really spent 90 minutes off script with him. Once I did, I could not believe that establishment Republicans, who I used to think had so much more control over their “party” than Democrats, could have let this guy be nominated. To be honest, I was never afraid of John McCain or Mitt Romney. I didn’t find them scary or risky; I just didn’t agree with them on many policy issues.
Trump is scary, not because he doesn’t know the rules of a democracy, but because he thinks that no rules apply to him. It’s a great style for a provocative media host; he is, according to University of Southern California professor Ann Crigler, far better at using social media, especially Twitter, than Clinton. But Twitter capabilities have very little to do with running the country and dealing with the world.
Lest anyone think he learned a lesson by Wednesday’s debacle, The Donald made clear on Thursday, the last time he and Clinton would be together, that no one was going to control him. I am absolutely certain that Kellyanne Conway, his campaign manager, knows the difference between good fun and personal attacks, between humor and just plain meanness. And if she didn’t tell him what was appropriate for an Al Smith dinner, a tradition in New York hosted by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the crowd did. They booed Trump. And he kept going.