In the clash of the two Trumps, the Republican Party is the loser

By Dan Balz analysis

For the past year, Donald Trump has dragged down to his level almost everything and everyone with whom he has come into contact, whether friend or foe.

Today, in the wake of the crude video that broke at the weekend, the entire Republican Party is feeling the effects of the Trump riptide as never before.

For many months, two Donald Trumps have been presented to the voters.

The first is the Trump who is a creation of those around him, of his handlers and of some Republican Party leaders. This is a Trump who is idealised by those loyalists. He is packaged, controlled, scripted, careful. He delivers pre-written policy proposals via teleprompter and is almost plausible as a victorious candidate.

Then there is the other Trump, the one who breaks the chains with regularity, to the dismay of those who must hastily try to clean up the mess. This is the Trump who is instinctual, reckless, unpredictable, defiant, uncontrollable, vulgar and insulting.

This is a Trump who is not a politically plausible winning candidate, no matter how loyal and devoted his base of support is.

Those two Trumps were on full display yesterday, though with a twist. This time even the controlled Trump, the Trump who addressed the nation in a taped video, appeared to be on the edge of busting loose.

When the Washington Post's David Fahrenthold posted his story with the 11-year-old video of Trump using gross and degrading language about women, everyone knew his campaign was entering a potential death spiral. Many Republicans think that even a decent performance in tomorrow's debate cannot turn around his fortunes.

Before the release of the Access Hollywood video, Trump was already reeling from two weeks of trouble - a bad performance in the first debate with Hillary Clinton, a fight with a former Miss Universe that included body shaming by the GOP nominee, a tweet storm that intensified those attacks, a story in the New York Times suggesting he might not have paid taxes for years and then a rambling, off-script rally in Pennsylvania.

After his running-mate, Mike Pence, turned in a strong performance in the vice-presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, on Wednesday, attention turned again to Trump's apparent lack of preparation for his first debate and whether he would buckle down ahead of the town-hall-style forum at Washington University in St Louis.

His campaign even scheduled him for a town hall event in New Hampshire in an obvious effort to give him experience with the give-and-take between candidate and voters that will be on display.

Was this part of debate prep? Trump mocked those who thought so, telling his New Hampshire audience that the event was in no way connected to getting ready for his second encounter with Clinton. That was more of the unscripted, rebellious Trump who remains convinced that he knows best about how to win the highest office in the land.

He issued two statements in response to the video. The first was terse and unapologetic, despite its use of the word "apologise." This was Trump as Trump, a statement that had the flavour of coming directly from the candidate. He called it "locker room banter" and seemed oblivious to the harm done to him by the video's release.

The next statement came many hours later in the late-night video. This was the packaged Trump, a lengthier statement with a more significant apology. "I said it, I was wrong, and I apologise," he said.

But he wasn't finished. He said his words did not compare to the way Bill and Hillary Clinton had treated women in the past. The apology video quickly devolved into an attack video. Republicans were incredulous at what they saw and heard.

The election had turned away from Trump in the two weeks since the first debate. Public and private polls told a story of a shift away from the GOP nationally and in battleground states. The Clinton campaign's internal analysis looked as bright as it had since those days in early August when she held a clear lead over her rival.

Republican strategists tracking the race state by state, via Senate campaigns or their own analysis of public polls, saw only the most torturous of paths for Trump to put together a winning 270 electoral votes. As one strategist put it when asked about the most feasible path for Trump: "I'm not sure what it is right now. . . . Hillary seems she's in the driver's seat when it comes to the Electoral College."

Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, described Trump's path pre-video as a triple lift of extraordinary proportions: First, hold all the states won by Mitt Romney in 2012 - no easy proposition, given North Carolina's tightness; then, capture Ohio and Florida, not out of the question before Saturday, though it would be extremely difficult to get both; and, finally, find another dozen or so electoral votes winning Pennsylvania or two other states to get over the top.

Those calculations are now on hold as everyone awaits the fallout from the video. Democrats wonder whether this might break open a campaign that has shifted back and forth, away from one candidate and towards another, depending on the tone and tenor of news coverage. Then, there is the small issue of tomorrow's debate.

Ohio Republican Chairman Matt Borges laid out Trump's dire situation in a telephone interview as he was trying to break away for a bike ride. "It's on life support," he said of Trump's candidacy, "and he has 90 minutes tomorrow to correct its course."

Trump's preparations for that debate became vastly more difficult as a result of the video. First, he and his advisers must settle on a strategy. Should he be contrite? Can he attack Bill and Hillary? Can he demonstrate that he's a changed person from the Trump of the Access Hollywood bus ride? Is that possible, given what he has said throughout the campaign?

But even if there is agreement on a strategy, can his advisers trust Trump to do as they all agree he should? He failed that test in Hempstead, New York, in the first debate. In a debate, he is always one comment away from the uncontrollable Trump with the capacity for self-inflicted wounds.

Some Republicans will want to wait until the St Louis debate before judging their next steps, hoping perhaps that Trump will produce a magical moment. Pence tried to find an awkward middle ground, saying he could not condone what Trump said in the video and offering prayers for Trump's family.

Others weren't waiting, as one after another GOP current or former elected official said they're done, that they won't vote for Trump. But one indication of the dilemma for the party was the reaction that Representative Joseph Heck, the Republican Senate candidate in Nevada, got when he announced his withdrawal of support. Some in his audience booed.

What's worse? Breaking with Trump and risking that the Trump constituency stays home, turns on the party after the election, or both?

Or continuing the awkward embrace of condemning Trump for specific transgressions but holding on to him as the nominee in the hope of protecting the party's Senate and House majorities in November?

No one can say where the party is heading, other than into a maelstrom of its own making.

That the party leadership bears some responsibility for the rise of Trump has long been clear, no matter how much many hoped he would never become the nominee.

Now it's a full-blown crisis. The election is four weeks away, but for the GOP, resolving the problem of the two Donald Trumps can't wait that long.

- Washington Post

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