As Donald Trump and his campaign manager Paul Manafort struggle to win an uphill battle in the final 100 days until election day, it’s worth remembering that the last strategist to successfully launch a Republican into the White House was Karl Rove in 2004. Rove’s playbook was varied and innovative in its boldness and amorality. Among his most successful tactics was defining an opponent’s strength and attacking it, while projecting one’s own weaknesses onto the opponent. Thus it was that decorated war heroes John Kerry and John McCain both found themselves somehow the targets of attacks on their patriotism and courage by a man whose military service record left much to be desired. It was appalling, but it worked: the patriotism role reversal was so transformative the 2004 Republican convention featured attendees wearing purple heart band-aids deliberately mocking Kerry’s commendations–an act that in a moral universe should have split the earth asunder and opened the infernal gates, but instead helped George W. Bush coast to victory based on staged photos with a flight suit and a codpiece.
It should come as no surprise, then, that in a battle featuring one of the most qualified candidates ever to seek the presidency in Hillary Clinton against a buffoonish thrice-married businessman with several bankruptcies and a sixth-grade speaking style in Donald Trump, the businessman should seek to emulate Rove’s tactics and trade his weaknesses for her strengths. It should also shock no one that in 2016 this effort should come via Trump’s own twitter account:
Hillary Clinton should not be given national security briefings in that she is a lose cannon with extraordinarily bad judgement & insticts.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 30, 2016
In an act of supreme chutzpah, a man becoming synonymous with hotheaded instability is attempting to portray his famously cautious opponent as possessing his own poor qualities. The fact that Trump misspelled not one but three words within that short tweet only reinforces the point.
But while Republicans would certainly love to run the same playbook twice, there’s a problem. In 2004 Republicans were able to substitute a coward for a hero because George W. Bush’s swaggering personality matched the theme, while John Kerry’s comparative personal fecklessness made him an easy changeling. The Republican Party owned national security and patriotism in the minds of the voters. In 2016 that won’t be so easy.
Donald Trump is reckless, and everyone knows it. There is no presaged frame of recklessness within which Clinton can be cast; on the contrary, her weaknesses such as they exist lie in the polar opposite direction. The Democratic Party as a whole is seen as a more stable choice with better innate instincts; the question of the election will be whether voters are angry enough at the system and desperate enough for change to install a man as patently unfit for the office as Donald Trump.
So Trump and Manafort may think they can recreate Rove’s playbook–or perhaps it’s not an intentional strategy but simple “I know you are but what am I” playground antics from a consummate schoolyard bully on social media. Either way it won’t work. The circumstances this year are far too different for the same trick to work twice.