What does Trump's big campaign shake-up mean? And much more importantly, what should these new campaign handlers actually do?
Trump was probably very unhappy with the results of his brief "go straight" strategy that culminated in his economic policy address last week in Detroit. In that speech, Trump made sure to emphasize all the same major talking points the Congressional Republicans and the party in general have emphasized for decades. He did introduce some more marketable new ideas, but the only real message anyone remembered was the same old mantra of cutting tax rates. And more importantly, the speech did nothing to stem his fall in the polls.
By giving a leadership role to Breitbart co-founder Steve Bannon, someone who's been a strong critic of establishment Congressional Republicans and particularly House Speaker Paul Ryan, Trump is making it very clear he'd rather stick with the kind of sharp attacks and emotionally-laden rhetoric Breitbart is famous for. It's also the kind of firebrand attack mode Trump rode to the GOP nomination. It also means that same establishment GOP in Congress will now be running an almost completely separate campaign from the Trump forces, and in many cases they might be effectively running against one another.
The meaning of Kellyanne Conway's hiring is a bit more nuanced. But it makes the most sense that someone like her with all her experience appearing on TV news is being brought in to be the new leading surrogate and spokesperson for the Trump campaign. In case you haven't noticed, a lot of those surrogates and spokespeople have made more embarrassing gaffes than even Trump himself for months now. Conway has just too much experience on camera not to stem that problem.
Okay, that was the easy part. The harder part is trying to figure out what Bannon and Conway should specifically do — that is, if Trump's campaign is even salvageable.
The simple answer is that Bannon and Conway clearly aren't going to succeed if they try to change Trump. But there is a tremendous amount of work they can do to make Trump do what he does MUCH better.
Let's start with Bannon and the unique skills the Breitbart machine brings to the table. You might think Trump already has no problem making controversial statements and cutting accusations against Hillary Clinton, and you'd be right. But let's face it, Breitbart does it better. It has better writers, a steelier focus, and just stays on message better than almost anyone. Trump may be a natural attack dog, but he's not a professional writer and it shows. If Bannon is allowed to grab copyediting controls over Trump's Twitter feed for instance, it could help.
And Conway will need to do something about the still haphazard communications and organization throughout the Trump campaign. On one hand, it's refreshing to encounter a presidential campaign that isn't so slickly produced and a candidate who's willing to say anything without first having it vetted by a dozen advisors. But the Trump campaign goes too far to the other extreme. Communicating with his staff and getting reliable answers from them has been a challenge for months. There's been little evidence of even a minimum amount of coordination on several levels. It's come to the point that there's no reason to believe Trump even has a decent get out the vote plan in place. Conway should at least be able to diagnose that problem and take a stab at making the Trump machine a little less chaotic.
Bannon and Conway have the potential to help Trump follow the example Harry Truman set in what looked like his hopeless campaign in 1948. Like Trump, Truman was well behind in the polls to Republican Thomas Dewey and running against a significant portion of his own fractured party. Dewey responded by almost dropping out of sight and confining his public comments to safe and empty platitudes like "Our future is ahead of us!" Clinton seems to be almost exactly copying that Dewey strategy. Truman's brilliant counter was to travel the country and keep pounding the Republican Congress at whistle stop after whistle stop. He never wavered in that focused attack. If Trump wants to recreate that part of Truman's shocking win in '48, hiring Bannon and Conway could be a great move.
But if the sum total of Bannon's and Conway's contributions are just honing Trump's verbal attacks and making the staff act more professionally, that still won't be enough. That's because the Trump campaign has reached a major roadblock that Truman or really any other major presidential candidate has never had to face. The always very anti-Trump news media has now successfully begun to filter all of Trump's statements and immediately recast them as foolish or even suicidal. This is a toxic problem that Trump has contributed to and it's not going to go away now, no matter how much nastier or repetitive he gets. And simply delivering more "mainstream" messages won't work either, as the weak response to Trump's economic speech proves. For almost a year, Trump was able to do the most important thing in politics: connect with the voters in an emotional way. But right now, the only emotion Trump is eliciting is scorn.
So how do you fix that?
When words are literally failing you in politics, it's time to shift to actions and imagery. Trump can achieve that by stopping all the campaigning just from behind a rally podium or on his Twitter account and get out and actually visit some rough neighborhoods and interact with real people and not just shake a few hands at one of his rallies. This isn't just something Trump needs to do, as campaigning for national office by all candidates in recent years has become all about canned events and rallies that aren't even visually interesting, let alone authentic. On Tuesday night, Trump broached the subject of why African-Americans should support him because the Democrats have been bigoted in their lazy demands for the black vote without really doing anything to help minorities improve their lives. But as many critics have pointed out, Trump delivered that message in front of an almost all-white audience. Imagine if Trump went to a poor, black neighborhood in Milwaukee to make that message? Imagine if he pointed to a bombed-out building or crumbling school as he said it? He'd likely be almost surrounded by hecklers or at least people who will never vote for him, but the point of that kind of campaigning isn't to win over the voters in front of you, it's to win over the people watching the video of it at home. That's exactly what happened to Ronald Reagan when he visited the South Bronx in 1980. Yes, he was heckled and probably nobody he met that day from the neighborhood voted for him. But the pictures and video of a Republican candidate wading into that territory were worth millions of votes and probably worth more than a billion words.
And getting back to Truman, it's important that he crisscrossed the country on that campaign whistle stop tour, speaking in front of the kinds of people who would never go to a pre-planned rally or canned event that pass for "campaigning" today. It wouldn't matter all that much what Trump would say if he did something like this, the TV or smartphone could even be on mute. The real value would be just seeing him interacting with real people in a very real setting. The news media can hate Trump all it wants, and even attack or ridicule these interactions, but it would basically be forced to show that video in the end. Because that kind of imagery really looks presidential. Just sounding presidential, as everyone keeps urging Trump to do, is overrated. Oh and by the way, getting out among the voters in devastated areas would be a great move for Hillary Clinton to do as well as she needs to stop simply being the anti-Trump and look more presidential herself.
But I'm doubtful that someone who's built a powerful internet website based on words alone like Bannon, and an experienced studio news show pundit like Conway are the most likely people to even realize they need to execute this crucial shift in the Trump strategy. And yet, this is exactly what Trump should do. Until he finds someone who can convince him to do so and actually amass a staff that can pull it off, no amount of campaign shuffles will change Trump's fortunes.