Oct. 3, 2016 10:44 a.m. ET
You could argue that Donald Trump had the strongest 30 minutes of his presidential campaign at the beginning of the first presidential debate, when he delivered a direct and succinct summary of his argument that American jobs are being shipped overseas by trade deals and big-business defections and can be lured back.
Well, after those opening minutes the debate shifted away to his comments about women and why he pursued for years the debunked assertion that President Barack Obama was born overseas. In the days since, the focus has been, bizarrely, on how he assailed weight gains by a Miss Universe and, more substantively, the performance and tax treatment of his businesses. It culminated in a Saturday night rally in which, among other things, he mocked unkindly the way Hillary Clinton walked to her car while suffering a bout of pneumonia.
Since about 9:30 last Monday night, in short, the campaign agenda has been more or less the kind the Clinton campaign would have wanted.
This is a recurring pattern in Mr. Trump’s world, raising the question of how it keeps happening—and whether it is destined to continue happening over the next five weeks.
The usual explanations are that the candidate lacks the self-discipline to avoid being lured down dead-end alleys, and has a temperament that allows him to be baited into self-defeating controversies. There is obvious credence to both arguments, though they also held true while the same style was succeeding during the Republican primary season.
But there are two other, more subtle explanations for this pattern.
The first is that Mr. Trump has over time planted some time bombs in his own pathway that now are starting to go off. The most obvious one has to do with his tax returns. The conversation now under way—what those returns show about his actual income, what they might show about the state of his business empire, the amount of federal taxes he has or hasn’t paid—would have been better held five months before the election, not five weeks before the election.
Mr. Trump decided, though, to resist calls then, not from Democrats but from fellow Republicans, to release his returns. Now the conversation is being driven instead by a leak to the New York Times, timely or untimely depending on your point of view, of portions of his 1995 return showing a staggering business loss of almost a billion dollars, providing a tax carryforward that likely reduced or eliminated Mr. Trump’s federal tax liability in the years since. Calmly explaining that would have been difficult months ago, but it’s twice as difficult in the general-election hothouse.
As a consequence, Mr. Trump now gets the worst of both worlds on the tax front. He is taking hits because of the presumption he’s paid very little in federal income taxes for the last decade, while still suffering from the perception that he may be hiding something else by not releasing the returns.
The same time-bomb phenomenon is at work, on a lesser scale, with some of the cruder comments and scenes from Mr. Trump’s past and his primary-season campaign. One thing is certain: The Clinton campaign knows how to take advantage.
The second, more subtle explanation is that Mr. Trump may be paying the price now for not having a fully-formed policy platform. The long stretches in a one-on-one debate, and the long open spaces in a general-election campaign, can be filled either with these kinds of controversies, or with more serious policy conversations.
Mr. Trump has the outlines of a platform that has special resonance with many voters in the current climate of economic uncertainty and anger. It says that what the experts have claimed about the effects of trade deals and immigration doesn’t hold water for a lot of working-class Americans, and that special interests have benefited from Washington policy-making in a way that average Americans haven’t. And he has told those average Americans that they shouldn’t have to see their Social Security or Medicare benefits trimmed to deal with the fallout.
Those arguments have a visceral appeal to many voters, and on a couple of fronts—notably taxes and energy—he has fleshed them out with detailed policy meat. But others remain vague or incomplete with details rarely discussed. So after the top lines are laid out, say in a 90-minute debate, the empty spaces tend to get filled in with discussions of the ideal weight of a Miss Universe.
All of which raises the question of whether it would be better now for Mr. Trump to do what some of his allies are suggesting, which is to turn the focus to Bill Clinton’s marital infidelities—or to go back to the more substantive points made in the first minutes of that first debate.
Write to Gerald F. Seib at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tags: Clinton campaign, Donald Trump, economic uncertainty, economy, Hillary Clinton, IRS, jobs, Medicare, New York Times, not releasing the returns, social security, tax returns, The Clinton campaign knows how to take advantage, Trump may be paying the price now for not having a fully-formed policy platform, Trump's debate strategy, voter anger, Why Donald Trump Gets Pulled Off Course