An old maxim of battle (and politics) suggests that you should never interfere with an opponent who’s in the process of committing suicide. Apparently, they don’t teach this at Wharton, because Donald Trump constantly makes this mistake.
It happened just Tuesday. Hillary Clinton’s attempted suicide might have been thwarted by FBI Director James Comey, who threw her a lifeline by not indicting the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Still, the revelation that she was “extremely careless” in the “handling of very sensitive, highly classified information,” might — in a rational world — disqualify someone from serving as commander in chief.
What is more, the revelation (implicit, but not spelled out) that she lied to the American public about multiple things, not the least of which was the canard that no classified information was sent from her private server, might — in a world where Republicans had nominated a credible candidate — have doomed her electoral chances.
But even with Trump as her opponent, in a news vacuum, the media might have been forced to really grapple with Clinton’s sins. In an industry that craves content to satisfy the demands of 24/7 news coverage, think pieces might have been written, cable news soliloquies might have been delivered, and the press might have spent some time overcompensating in an effort to prove they are not really so biased.
Then, Donald Trump did something that would ensure this story would not live on for multiple news cycles: He praised Saddam Hussein .
“He was a bad guy — really bad guy. But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk,” Trump said of the former dictator. “They were terrorists. It was over. Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism.”
This is nothing new. He has been saying similar things this entire campaign. The difference, of course, is that he’s now the nominee. And, sadly for Republicans, his success in the primaries taught him all the wrong lessons, reinforcing behavior that won’t work in this new context.
A common mistake
In fairness to Trump, this mistake of changing the subject at just the wrong time — of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory — is all too common for Republicans.
In the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attack in 2012, the press seemed to be asking some serious questions about what happened that fateful day. It did not look good for the Democrats in charge. Then, Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president, decided to insert himself by holding a press conference. This provided an easy out for the press to switch from covering a serious and macabre story to talking about “process.” The horse race is always lighter and requires less knowledge.
So instead of talking about Ambassador Chris Stevens, we could shift to speculation about whether Mitt Romney should have “politicized” a tragedy like this.
Why did he do it? One problem is that we have a bias toward action, even when the best advice might be: “Don’t just do something, stand there!” It is surprisingly hard for a campaign to stay the course, keep mouths shut and be a spectator. Sometimes, though, that’s just what the situation demands.
Other times, there are perverse incentives for stepping on a storyline. The benefits are concentrated while the costs are dispersed. In 2013, coverage of the disastrous Obamacare rollout was postponed and overshadowed for at least a month by the government shutdown that was, ironically, aimed at defunding the law. Absent the shutdown story, the media would have spent an extra month covering the failings of the rollout and the glitchy website. (The other big story at the time was President Obama allowing Syria to cross his “red line” on chemical weapons.) Instead, Republicans who benefited personally from the gambit provided an irresistible counternarrative casting themselves as villains.
Rules still rule
This all brings us back to Donald Trump, a candidate almost uniquely designed to ignore my advice. His candidacy is partly based on changing the game and flouting the rules. As we witnessed in the recent Star of David controversy, there seems to be an implicit sense that running a shrewd campaign is tantamount to bowing to political correctness run amok. But the rest of us live in the real world where the rules still rule.
What I know is this: The media is liberally biased (no, it’s not a conspiracy, but it is a shared worldview). And I also know that shiny objects distract us. The Clintons have been around forever, and Hillary Clinton is a dull personality. This serves as a disincentive for anyone looking to gin up ratings or page views or clicks to cover. This may not be fair, but who said it would be?
In comparison, Donald Trump is ratings catnip. As we enter this new phase of the campaign, this is probably a bug, not a feature. Even putting aside political bias, there will always be a natural tendency to focus on Trump’s petty or superficial “scandals”— and to minimize the more serious scandals or policy debates that might better inform the public. This is not appropriate or salutary, it just “is.”
I didn’t write these rules, I just abide by them. Donald Trump would be wise to do the same.
Roll Call columnist Matt K. Lewis is a Senior Contributor to the Daily Caller and author of the book “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter@MattKLewis