Thus far, former President Trump has run a nearly flawless campaign. Ever popular in MAGA communities, he has skilfully milked the negative press he always gets - whether at a court appearance, a stop at a coffee shop, or back at his numerous properties.
But more crucially, Trump has been brilliant in following Napoleon Bonaparte's strategy: "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." [Napoleon, one of history's outstanding military leaders, led French revolutionary armies to numerous victories and became emperor of France from 1804 to 1814].
President Biden has been reeling under a torrent of bad news. Last Thursday, Special Counsel Robert Hur, appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate whether Biden, when he was VP, unlawfully retrieved classified documents from an ultra-secure SCIF (sensitive compartmented information facility) and clumsily stored them in his Delaware garage, concluded that Biden did not even remember when he was vice president. Biden is "an elderly man with a poor memory" and with "diminished faculties," Hur wrote, prompting an outcry among Biden supporters and aides.
In an instant, Hur's assessment undercut Biden's 2024 campaign strategy and dealt a body blow to the campaign's long-nurtured narrative that democracy was on the ballot. It caused some in the Democratic Party to question Biden's very candidacy. How could a practically senile person run a race? How would Biden fare in debates with Trump? Should Biden withdraw? If so, when? And who would replace him?
Meanwhile, the administration continues to make numerous unforced errors. On the much-touted border deal, Biden threw his political capital behind the legislation only to see it fail in the Senate. Pulled to the Left by liberal members of his coalition, Biden has tried to influence Israeli PM Netanyahu to moderate his stance on Gaza. But the Israeli leader continues to rebuff him, mindful of his own precarious position domestically.
On Ukraine, Zelensky's much-promoted visit in December to get Congress to fund an emergency supplemental failed, leading Ukraine's leader to announce in Davos that he was seeking peace with Russia, albeit on Kyiv's terms. (For the first time in two years, Zelensky was not asking for more arms.) Biden won a major battle when the United States Senate passed a stand-alone Ukraine-Israeli aid bill on Superbowl Sunday when Americans weren't looking, authorizing $61 billion in arms and support to the war-torn country. The legislation's fate in the House is in doubt.
Biden's performance in recent weeks has been so dismal that our TIPP Presidential Leadership Index measured 'significant' vulnerability in 18 critical demographic groups as Biden prepares for his reelection contest with Trump. In November 2023, Biden was faring poorly in only five groups.
Trump faces several odds in reclaiming the presidency, and history is against him. Grover Cleveland is the only former president who achieved this feat - in 1892. Cleveland won in 1884 (like Trump did in 2016), lost to Benjamin Harrison in 1888 (like Trump did to Biden in 2020), and decisively beat Harrison in a rematch in 1892. Both Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 and Herbert Hoover in 1940 failed their respective re-attempts.
One clear path for Trump to victory is to let Biden crumble under his numerous troubles. As long as Trump keeps his public comments focused on the economy, inflation, Israel, Ukraine, lawfare, the Southern border, and the utter incompetence of the Biden administration, Trump could pull off a Cleveland and sail back to a second term.
Trump is mindful that his reelection depends upon support from independents. In the latest I&I/TIPP poll, independents said they prefer Trump over Biden by 41% to 35%, a crucial six-point margin. Many independents agree that the Democrats are using the justice system to handicap Trump at the ballot box and are buying into the argument that the Left's lawfare efforts amount to "election interference."
But Trump risks losing this slim support if he were to remind independent voters about his own controversial policy positions that he championed during his term. When Trump said in an interview on Fox's Sunday Morning Futures that he would reimpose tariffs on China, CNBC jumped all over the former president’s assertion, charging that he would be reviving the trade war he triggered when he imposed $250 billion in China tariffs.
Last weekend, Trump let himself lose on NATO at a South Carolina rally. Referring to another of his pet peeves, that NATO members do not contribute their fair share to European defense, Trump hinted that he would practically encourage Russia to attack a NATO country as punishment. The New York Times, straining for weeks under Biden's troubles, saw a Trump unforced error and charged: "Never before has a president of the United States — even a former one aspiring to reclaim the office — suggested that he would incite an enemy to attack American allies." Trump's loose talk could cost him votes in the South Carolina primary against Nikki Haley. The Palmetto State takes significant pride in sending its young adults to the U.S. Armed Forces.
The election is nearly nine months away, and Trump faces many uncertainties, including a potential federal criminal indictment or unfavorable rulings in the Georgia RICO case. The White House is not yet in Trump's bag, and unforced errors like the ones above could remind Independents that Trump's grievance-based policy proposals are just as ruinous as Biden's terrible stewardship of America. And they could decide to stick with a thoroughly inferior but safer choice in Biden. That would be a disaster from which the ‘America First’ movement can never recover.