The Sunday Take: Trump fritters away advantage of incumbency.
President Trump had a bad week: That was the week before last. He had another one this past week. For someone trailing former vice president Joe Biden in the presidential race, Trump remains the biggest obstacle to reelection, an embattled incumbent who is frittering away the advantages of incumbency.
The week before last it was an article in the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg that portrayed the president using derogatory language about military personnel killed or wounded in action. It was based on several unnamed sources, and Trump — and others now or formerly in the administration — vigorously disputed the account. Prominently absent from those publicly defending Trump were former defense secretary Jim Mattis and, critically, former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly.
This past week it was an entirely different issue for the president — a self-inflicted problem that was the result of his many hours of taped, on-therecord conversations with Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward, whose book “Rage” will be published this week.
Trump’s own words plunged him into a controversy about how early he knew about the dangers of the coronavirus and why he didn’t share that with the public. Because he couldn’t disclaim what was on the tapes, he offered as a defense that he didn’t want to panic the public — though as The Post’s Phil Rucker pointed out, the president has repeatedly played on fear as a political weapon.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has been skillful at creating diversions when things go awry. Today, it’s more the case that events are creating distractions from his ability to deliver a consistent and effective campaign message. This is one more example of the reality that, since the beginning of the year, he has seen the advantages of incumbency erode or disappear.
Before the pandemic, the economy was the single strongest asset Trump had to persuade people — especially those who are repelled by his behavior — to give him a second term. Unemployment was at historic lows. The stock market was at record highs. The economic growth rate, while not spectacular, was steadily positive.
The economy’s collapse, as businesses shut down as part of the efforts to combat the pandemic, robbed Trump of the ability to credibly argue his case. Today his campaign message is a combination of hope — claiming the economy is already roaring back in the face of numbers that suggest otherwise — and the argument that he will be more effective than Biden in the rebuilding. More Americans still trust him over Biden on the economy, but the margin is not what it was.
The second advantage that Trump once enjoyed was in the luxury of time to prepare for the general election and to define his opponent. Other incumbents have used this tactic effectively. In 2012, just as the Republican nomination contest had concluded, the campaign of President Barack Obama unleashed a barrage of television ads designed to define challenger Mitt Romney as an outof-touch plutocrat. In 2004, George W. Bush’s campaign clobbered Democrat John F. Kerry just as he was coming out of his primaries. Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign put Republican Bob Dole on the defensive early in the 1996 campaign, and Dole never recovered.
Biden effectively became the Democratic nominee in early March. Like Romney in 2012, he had limited resources and his campaign was far from ready for a full-fledged general election contest. But Biden proved to be an elusive target. The Trump campaign tried and tried to find something that would stick, but as spring turned to summer and as June bled into the late-August conventions, little damage was done.
The third big advantage Trump was supposed to have was money. On the day he was inaugurated, he set in motion the machinery to begin raising money for his reelection. Long before the Democratic race was underway, Trump was beginning to amass an enormous war chest, in partnership with the Republican National Committee.
As little as three months ago, it was a given that the president would maintain a sizable financial advantage throughout the campaign. Biden was far behind the president in fundraising, and Democrats feared that his campaign team would have to make some difficult decisions about where to spend his more limited resources while Trump could spend freely on TV ads, digital ads, organizing — on everything.
Now all that has turned around: Last month, Biden raised a stunning $365 million, far more than the still impressive $210 million Trump raised.
The Trump operation, however, hadn’t just raised buckets of money, it had spent it at a prodigious clip, more than $1 billion even before his convention had occurred. Much of it was spent to raise more money. Other expenditures seemed highly questionable in retrospect, as documented recently by the New York Times.
Biden now appears assured of having all the resources he needs for the duration of the campaign. Significantly, he is airing many more television ads in battleground states than Trump, although that doesn’t mean Trump won’t ramp up in the coming weeks.
Trump, however, is not without assets to use in the final weeks. As president, he can use the levers of the federal government to benefit himself politically — and is doing so.
On Friday he announced an agreement between Israel and
Bahrain to establish diplomatic relations, a month after a similar agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. How significant these developments will be remains an open question, but they are markers he can point to as progress.
He is pushing for an early announcement of an effective vaccine against the virus that causes covid-19. Despite cautions to the contrary, that a vaccine probably won’t be ready before the end of the year at the earliest, he can use his bully pulpit to promise the public and cajole the Food and Drug Administration.
Four years ago, then-FBI Director James B. Comey reopened an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of private emails as secretary of state in the final two weeks of the campaign, an unexpected development that disrupted her candidacy, even though that reopening came to naught.
Trump could have his own version of this kind of judicial intervention: U.S. Attorney for Connecticut John Durham, who was appointed by Attorney General William P. Barr, is investigating the role of U.S. intelligence agencies looking into Russian interference in 2016. His report could be released before the election.
On Friday, it was reported that Nora Dannehy, one of the senior prosecutors on Durham’s team, had resigned, a move that could prompt questions about whether the investigators are under undue political pressure to finish their work.
Finally, Trump continues his efforts to discredit voting by mail — in most states at least — and thereby to seed the ground for doubts about whether the election will be fairly decided if he falls short.
With seven weeks left until Election Day and with Biden holding a lead in the polls, Trump has ground to make up, though the electoral college math remains friendlier to him than the popular vote. Each week that he is trapped in a controversy about his own leadership, the less time he has to make his case against his challenger.
He is stepping up the pace of campaigning, having departed Saturday for a western swing to Nevada and Arizona. As in the fall of 2016, he shows a determination to fight to the last hour. His advantages have been eroded, but they are not depleted. Whether he can use them effectively, or falls victim to his own missteps, will likely decide his fate.
President Trump’s supporters watch him give a speech at a campaign event Tuesday in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Dan Balz THE SUNDAY TAKE