The Sun­day Take: Trump frit­ters away ad­van­tage of in­cum­bency.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Dan.balz@wash­post.com

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.

JABIN BOTS­FORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Pres­i­dent Trump’s sup­port­ers watch him give a speech at a cam­paign event Tues­day in Win­ston-Salem, N.C.

Dan Balz THE SUN­DAY TAKE

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