Trump's 'Oc­to­ber sur­prise'

The Standard Journal - - COMMENTARY - By DAVID SHRIBMAN

No one ex­pected the "Oc­to­ber Sur­prise" of the 2016 cam­paign to be a video with a mem­ber of the Bush fam­ily recorded on his way to a cameo in a soap opera. Nor did any­one ex­pect the sec­ond pres­i­den­tial de­bate to take on the air of pro wrestling.

But Don­ald J. Trump's decade­old lewd re­marks, and his sex­ual brag­gado­cio, on the set of "Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood" with host Billy Bush have thrown the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion into up­heaval. The video prompted Re­pub­li­can Party lead- ers to as­sess their op­tions, cre­ated fresh unease among GOP con­gres­sional and gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­dates who have ex­tended a ten­ta­tive em­brace to Trump, and added new drama to Sun­day night's de­bate at Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in St. Louis.

That de­bate swiftly de­te­ri­o­rated into a he-said/she-said bat­tle, with for­mer Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton ques­tion­ing Trump's fit­ness for of­fice and Trump as­sert­ing that his ri­val de­served to be in jail. The two bick­ered over who was the big­ger enemy of women. And they called each other liars.

The 2016 cam­paign has been un­prece­dented in the un­pre­dictable forces it has un­leashed, in the new fron­tiers of cam­paign com­port­ment it has cre­ated, in the chaos it has sown in es­tab­lished party align­ments, and the unease it has cre­ated among party lead­ers and vot­ers.

One of the early ca­su­al­ties was in re­defin­ing the bound­aries of ac­cept­able cam­paign lan­guage.

That was be­fore crude anatom­i­cal de­scrip­tions and coarse ca­sual con­ver­sa­tion be­came a

po­ten­tial turn­ing point in the cam­paign. Even in a coun­try that en­dured the pres­i­den­tial im­peach­ment of Bill Clin­ton, pre­ceded by a re­port from in­de­pen­dent coun­sel Ken­neth Starr that shared many el­e­ments with pornog­ra­phy, the re­marks of Trump shook the coun­try.

Like the course of the cam­paign, the im­pli­ca­tions of this episode are im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict. But at the very least, Trump, whose de­bate prepa­ra­tions were dis­rupted by the furor over his re­marks, faces pos­si­ble ero­sion of sup­port from mem­bers of sev­eral vi­tal voter groups, not least of them women, whose sup­port he strug­gled to win long be­fore the re­lease of this video.

Also at risk: Sup­port from Re­pub­li­can can­di­dates who were re­luc­tant to back him in the first place; the GOP es­tab­lish­ment, which has re­garded him with fear and con­tempt and has in large mea­sure with­held its sup­port; reli­gious con­ser­va­tives who were trou­bled by his three mar­riages and now have rea­son to reassess their sup­port; some late ad­her­ents to the Trump cause who, un­like the Trump True Believ­ers, sup­ported the mes­sage while re­tain­ing their skep­ti­cism of the mes­sen­ger.

Those who have been with Trump from the start, and who re­gard his rough edges and many of his pro­fane com­ments as a re­fresh­ing an­ti­dote to "po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness," are un­likely to be jarred by the episode. The size of that core is dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine, but it does not ap­proach an elec­toral ma­jor­ity.

Sel­dom has a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign faced a chal­lenge of this mag­ni­tude -- though Trump dra­mat­i­cally turned the ta­bles on his ri­val just 90 min­utes be­fore the de­bate by as­sem­bling a panel of women who them­selves ac­cused Bill Clin­ton of sex­ual crimes.

The only prece­dents for the Trump im­broglio oc­curred ear­lier in the elec­tion cy­cle than this one, a month be­fore Elec­tion Day and as some Amer­i­cans are tak­ing ad­van­tage of early-vot­ing pro­ce­dures in their states or are cast­ing ab­sen­tee bal­lots.

The two re­cent com­par­isons in­volved run­ning mates rather than pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nees them­selves, and each has a rich res­o­nance among po­lit­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als, who cul­ti­vate a knowl­edge of these sorts of episodes.

The most fa­mous in­volves charges that Sen. Richard M. Nixon had a "slush fund," a claim that roiled the 1952 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in late Septem­ber, un­set­tled GOP nom­i­nee Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower and prompted Nixon to go on the air with what is now known as the "Check­ers Speech." Nixon's trea­cly re­marks, which in­cluded an ap­peal to Eisen­hower that the nom­i­nee found cloy­ing and an ap­peal to the pub­lic that helped save Nixon's place on the ticket, are re­mem­bered for his ref­er­ence to his wife's "Re­pub­li­can cloth coat" and to the story about a cocker spaniel sent to the Nixons by a sup­porter in Texas and that Tricia Nixon, then 6 years old, named Check­ers.

"The kids, like all kids, love the dog," Nixon said, "and I just want to say this right now, that re­gard­less of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it." Though the speech be­came re­garded as a prime ex­am­ple of cam­paign camp and cant, Nixon kept his po­si­tion as the Re­pub­li­can vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee and as­sumed that po­si­tion in 1953.

Two decades later, Sen. Ge­orge McGovern of South Dakota, the 1972 Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, se­lected Sen. Thomas Ea­gle­ton as his run­ning mate.

Then news re­porters dis­cov­ered that Ea­gle­ton had re­ceived shock treat­ment, prompt­ing Demo­cratic Party lead­ers to worry that a ticket that al­ready had a whiff of doom would be fa­tally hurt. McGovern orig­i­nally pro­nounced him­self "1,000 per­cent" be­hind his run­ning mate, a re­mark that would soon haunt him as Ea­gle­ton was forced from the ticket and re­placed by R. Sar­gent Shriver, a Kennedy rel­a­tive by mar­riage with solid lib­eral cre­den­tials. Months later the Democrats lost ev­ery state but Mas­sachusetts. Even­tu­ally Ea­gle­ton took a po­si­tion at Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity -- the venue for the Sun­day de­bate.

Eisen­hower and to a lesser ex­tent Nixon -- a two-term House mem­ber who had won a dif­fi­cult Se­nate race two years ear­lier and, as a ded­i­cated Cold War­rior, was seen as a sym­bol of the new gen­er­a­tion of World War II Re­pub­li­can politi­cians -- had the trust of the party lead­er­ship. Trump does not.

But Trump has tri­umphed by show­ing, and oc­ca­sion­ally am­pli­fy­ing, his con­tempt for the party whose nom­i­na­tion he won. He has also made a virtue of his mis­cues, an ap­proach he reached for Friday evening when he ac­knowl­edged his faults but swiftly ex­plained that his na­tional cam­paign had ren­dered him a changed man, ar­gu­ing that the re­marks "don't re­flect who I am."

That once again is at the cen­ter of a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign that a year ago seemed to be a ref­er­en­dum on his op­po­nent. Since the be­gin­ning of the year, the cam­paign has in­stead largely been a ref­er­en­dum on Trump, and now more than ever the choice in Novem­ber is over, as the can­di­date him­self put it in the mid­dle of his cur­rent cri­sis, "who I am."

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