CLEVELAND – The chaos, ineptitude and controversy in and around the Republican convention here have led top Democratic strategists to conclude that they can now attack Donald Trump on a basic level: his ability to handle the job of president.
“It’s a trust issue now,” said Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, who is a clear party player and the head of its Senatorial Campaign Committee. “He’s not up to the job. We can’t trust him to actually handle the work.”
To be sure, Trump’s incendiary, outrageous comments on race, immigration and Muslims are ammo for the Democrats. On social issues, the GOP platform is the hardest to the right on record, as is Trump’s vice presidential pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a leading foe of abortion and gay rights.
But Democrats have now decided that they can attack him on what the Trump camp sees as his strength: his ability to “get things done.”
It’s a strategy that has risks, given the GOP’s determination to attack Clinton as a secretary of state who mismanaged the Benghazi attack and who was deemed “careless” at best by the FBI for he mishandling of classified data in her emails.
“He actually BUILDS things,” Trump adviser Roger Stone told me of the candidate. “No one else in politics does that.”
But if you consider the chain of events leading up Cleveland and up to this minute, it is hard to conclude that Trump has demonstrated the kind of close command required to be the party standard-bearer, let alone president and commander-in-chief.
Trump likes to operate with a loose-knit team of aides in which there is no real chain of command or organizational structure. It gives him the freedom to operate as he wants, but also deniability if one of his scrambling advisers makes a mistake.
He also hates to be told what to do or say – an admirable quality in many ways, but one that means he refuses to delegate and attempts both to micromanage and remain aloof at the same time. Add to that Trump’s hatred of long hours and the intense daily details of politics (not to mention government), and you end up with man who may not be suited to be the CEO of the country.
As if to answer these concerns in advance, Trump has said – and told others – that he wants to be the “chairman of the board” to a vice president who will operate as the chief operating officer.
“We’ve been through that before,” said Franken. “That was the problem with George W. Bush. He didn’t know the details, and ended up making decisions on the fly that were huge mistakes.”
The floating structure around Trump, with Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort ostensibly at the center, did accomplish its one official mission at the convention: securing the nomination.
But there were messes all around.
Trump was backed into picking Pence before he wanted to, and after word leaked. As a result, neither of the other two contenders, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, were told of the decision in advance.
Despite Manafort’s reputation for skill at managing the convention floor, much of the first two days were consumed with battles in which the Trump campaign was caught flat-footed by social media and live cable coverage that gave prominence to Trump foes.
The Trump campaign’s decision to allow Sen. Ted Cruz to speak was widely panned by even supportive convention delegates – and even some Cruz fans. “I don’t know why he spoke or why they let him speak without Ted agreeing to endorse Trump,” said Fran Wendelboe, a delegate from New Hampshire who was a Cruz supporter in the primaries.
The story of Melania Trump’s partially plagiarized speech dominated the news in Cleveland for nearly three days, with aides and Trump himself contradicting each other’s stories hour by hour.
The final picture was one of shocking sloppiness: A longtime Trump business aide had scribbled notes she didn’t know Melania had lifted from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech.
Trump flew home to his skyscraper penthouse in Manhattan after the Melania debacle, reinforcing the image of a leader comfortable only tweeting on his smart phone from his own office – or bed.
Finally, just hours before his own speech, Trump gave an interview to The New York Times that blew up in his face – and underscored the point that the Democrats want to make about him. He declared that the U.S. would honor NATO treaty commitments only if the countries that are signatories to it have made all of their payments to the organization’s treasury.
Manafort insisted that Trump had been misquoted – until the Times released the full transcript that, embarrassingly but inevitably, proved him wrong. Trump had said it, and evidently his “chairman” had no idea.
And so it went.
A PAC allied with the Democrats had already put out a video playing on the “3 a.m. phone call” ad Hillary Clinton once used. The strategy didn’t appear to work against Barack Obama in 2008, but the Dems are going to give it another try.
This time, they may have a point.