Every week, Fox News contributor Karl Rove wraps up the last week in politics and offers an inside look at the week ahead.
On the surface, not a bad week for Donald Trump: Sunday, September 25, he trailed Hillary Clinton in the RealClearPolitics average by 3.1 points, 43.4% to 46.5%, the day before the first presidential debate. By Sunday, October 2, with the debate nearly a week in the rear view mirror, the race had closed to 2.5% with Trump at 45% and Clinton at 47.5%.
But that’s just the surface. Underneath the numbers, it was a very bad week for Trump.
Not the debate. He held his own the first 20 minutes or so and even though Clinton got into his head, causing him to react badly time and time again, the debate was not a complete disaster. While she (with his cooperation) continued raising doubts about his fitness for the presidency, she did little to change the impression he represents change while she represents more of the status quo.
Voters by 2:1 thought she won the debate, but those kinds of spectator judgments rarely affect the horse race. Partisans can say their favorite lost the debate without changing their preference. This could have been another instance where a presidential debate confirmed the pre-existing impressions of voters and didn’t alter the trajectory of the contest.
But it was what came after was really bad: Trump was incensed by Clinton raising his comments about a former Miss Universe winner and devoted five days to tweeting, talking, and commenting on why his derogatory comments about a beauty queen with a weight problem were justified.
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Two problems. First, who cares? Who thinks that voters are attracted by the kinds of comments Trump made in past years or last week about a beauty contest winner? Trump is unlikely to gain very many new supporters by this controversy.
Second, we are at a stage in the campaign where a candidate’s most valuable asset is time. When the debate ended at Hofstra, both candidates had 42 days until voting ended. Trump devoted five of them to a message that was off-putting, unimportant, and unflattering.
It wasn’t like he lacked for other things to talk about: Monday, the FBI announced that murders were up 10.8 percent in 2015. The self-proclaimed law and order candidate could have devoted Tuesday to that.
Tuesday, Congress grilled FBI Director James Comey over his handling of the Clinton email investigation.
Wednesday, President Obama vetoed the bill allowing 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia and news broke that 600 more U.S. troops were being dispatched to Iraq.
Thursday, a GAO report accused the administration of illegally funding ObamaCare in violation of federal law, propping up an unpopular program with money Congress specifically prohibited the administration from using.
Friday, news broke on Clinton’s comments about Bernie Sander’s youthful supporters and the U.S.-Russian talks and agreements about Syria broke down.
Surely in this list are better issues for Trump to raise than the weight, eating habits, and sexual misdeeds of a beauty queen.
Debates rarely change the course of a campaign. It’s what happens between debates that alters public opinion. I would not be surprised if later this week, Clinton’s margin in the RealClearPolitics average rises as polls done before the first debate are replaced by more polls conducted in the days since.
Still, Clinton hasn’t helped herself much: All this kerfuffle has done little to help Clinton, who is still burdened by a reputation for being dishonest and untrustworthy and who has done little to warm herself up. She put Trump on the defensive at the debate and he has kept himself there since then, but she hasn’t advanced her cause.
The tax bomb has now exploded: Trump was pushed even more into a defensive crouch by the New York Times’ publication this weekend of a 1995 tax return that shows he claimed a $916 million tax loss that year that could have offset income for the next 18 years.
This could hurt. Some voters have been drawn to Trump because of his wealth. He exudes success and doesn’t seem embarrassed by his riches. But much of that could be undermined if ordinary people think he’s gaming the system in a way they never could.
The Trump campaign’s response is to call their candidate a “genius” for claiming the losses and avoiding taxes. Would it not be better to say the tax code allows any business to deduct their losses against their gains, that Trump was doing exactly what the law allows, and that it would make no sense to require people to pay taxes even when they lost money? Then Trump could go on the offense, saying Clinton is so crazy to get more tax revenue to spend on bigger government that she thinks people should pay more taxes even if they lose money. So the small businesswoman should pay income taxes even if her business is losing money? So the working man should keep paying taxes on wages he doesn’t receive even if he loses his job?
Don’t make it worse: Finally, Trump has threatened to raise the question of Bill Clinton’s infidelities in the next debate. Even ardent Trumpistas like former Speaker Newt Gingrich has said this is a bad idea. It is.
Trump will not get to the White House by reexamining the Monica Lewinsky scandal or even going after Hillary Clinton for defending her husband by trashing the women who accused him of sexual misconduct.
Trump has less than a sterling reputation in the area of marital fidelity himself.
This will not be the decisive issue on which voters decide the election.
By devoting time to this controversy, Trump chews up time that could be better-devotedto issues that would bring swing voters to his column. And if he pursues this line of attack, Trump could well make Clinton a victim and a more sympathetic figure.
Karl Rove joined Fox News Channel as a political contributor in February 2008. He also currently serves as a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Rove helped organize the political-action committee American Crossroads. His latest book is “The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters” (Simon Schuster, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @KarlRove.