There's a scene from "The Simpsons" that has stuck with me for years. Homer is trying to make breakfast, but everything keeps catching on fire. It's the Homer-making-breakfast version of the corny "the definition of insanity is ..." poster your older co-worker has in his office. You keep trying to do something, and it keeps not working, and, somehow, that still baffles you.
Which brings us, as everything does, to Donald Trump. Or, really, to Republican Party head Reince Priebus, who here will play the role of Homer Simpson.
Priebus, the New York Times reports, "has pleaded with party leaders and donors to give Mr. Trump time to adjust to the general election." Sure, Donald Trump's convention was a bust, and, sure, Trump isn't really running a campaign, and, sure, Trump has spent almost a week fighting with the family of a soldier who earned a posthumous Bronze Star for valor, but he's adjusting! He's getting there!
There's just one problem with that argument. It has been 91 days since John Kasich dropped out of the presidential race, handing the Republican nomination to Donald Trump and giving him the opportunity to transition to the general election. It is currently 97 days until Election Day.
So Donald Trump has wasted just shy of half of his general election push. If Trump still needs to adjust to the general election, he'd better hurry up, or he'll adjust at about midnight on Nov. 7. Compare Trump's position to his opponent's: Hillary Clinton was raising money and lining up support for the general before Bernie Sanders conceded, to the annoyance of Sanders supporters. Trump didn't start raising money until a month and a half after all of his opponents dropped out.
There are two slightly overlapping efforts to get Donald Trump elected. There's that of Trump and his team, and there's that of the Republican Party. One would not be surprised to learn that members of the latter — folks who've run and won campaigns in the past — are a bit panicky. Trump's indifference to annoying his ostensible party is one thing, but his failure to run any semblance of a campaign is another thing entirely. We went over this Tuesday, but a quick review is in order:
- Trump had $1.3 million on hand at the end of June. Clinton had $42.5 million.
- Trump had just over 70 people on payroll in June. Clinton had 10 times as many.
- Trump has disavowed a broad data-field operation. Clinton's campaign is continuing its robust operation from the primaries.
- Trump has lost or fired a number of staffers in recent weeks.
- Trump has no TV ad time reserved; a PAC supporting him has committed under $1 million in a couple of states. Clinton and PACs supporting her have reserved nearly $100 million.
If you're used to running political campaigns, those are coronary-inducing numbers. And that doesn't even include the fact that the candidate keeps throwing boulders in his own path.
None of this has really mattered to Trump, though, because he and his team have been moving along in lock-step. Trump clearly thinks that the process he used to crawl past the competition in the Republican primary will work again in the general, and it's not clear that anyone in his close orbit disagrees — or, perhaps, can convince him that he's wrong.
On Tuesday evening, though, there were reports that even his close advisers were throwing up their hands. CNBC's John Harwood chatted with someone close to campaign manager Paul Manafort, who said that Manafort was "not challenging (Trump) anymore. Mailing it in. Staff suicidal." The Trump campaign denied that, of course, and Trump himself jumped on Twitter to rebut the idea.
There is great unity in my campaign, perhaps greater than ever before. I want to thank everyone for your tremendous support. Beat Crooked H!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 3, 2016
The last time he issued such a denial was when he was trying to rebut widespread reporting that he was having second thoughts about his vice-presidential pick.
Because Trump hires for loyalty — very effectively — it's hard to gauge the accuracy of Harwood's source. It doesn't seem like much of a stretch, though, to think that being hired to get Trump to run a presidential campaign would be a bit like being hired to guide a battleship into a parking garage. After a while, you're likely to give up and let the battleship just keep on floating around, firing shells straight up into the sky.
It seems clear that Trump isn't doing anything that will significantly change the trajectory of the race over the short term, a trajectory that favors his opponent. He no doubt thinks that the debates offer an opportunity to move the needle, but, then, so did the conventions — and a majority of those who watched or read about Trump's convention came away less likely to back him.
One of the things that has frustrated Priebus the most this week, though, is Trump's disinterest in backing House Speaker Paul D. Ryan or Sen. John McCain in their primary matchups. NBC's Katy Tur tweeted a report from a source saying that Priebus "is 'apoplectic' over Trump's refusal to back Ryan. He called several Trump staffers to express his displeasure. The next 24 to 72 hours are crucial. There is serious talk about key Republicans coming out hard against Trump." The Times report suggested something similar about Republicans reaching a point of giving up. It's happened before; in 1996, Republicans bailed on a faltering Bob Dole, although they didn't do so until October.
A lack of endorsements is a weird thing to get mad about, though, considering everything else above. Going back to the original analogy: Priebus, trying to make breakfast but seeing everything catch fire, decides that he's mad at the height of the flames. His prerogative, but that's not going to keep his stomach from rumbling.