The predictions of naysayers from left and right have finally come true. Trump's double-digit primary leads have translated into deficits against Hillary Clinton among likely voters. A gleeful media peanut gallery, backed by credible sources like Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan claim Trump's ongoing gaffes evidence he is temperamentally unfit for office.
But Trump's desperate rhetoric is only a symptom of the root problem, one his campaign never expected to have. Its effect is that the 'presidential pivot' many hoped for simply hasn't materialized. If it had, Trump's 'forgotten man' would now be backseat to a proposition impossible for the GOP to lose with.
So what happened? Well, the problem began with the VP pick, ended at the convention and saddled the Trump campaign since with all the downside of an insurgent but none of the equities, a mirror image of his primary proposition.
Still, the turn of the pivot actually started strongly. As the primary climaxed Trump held the press conferences others refused to and answered quick-fire questions flawlessly. When the last competitors for the nomination were vanquished, he appeared magnanimous. And to cap the bitterness and amateurism of the primary, he fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and replaced him with the eminently capable insider Paul Manafort.
But then came the first political decision of major consequence. The Veep pick is traditionally an afterthought designed to balance wings of the party and/or electoral geography. Yet for a non-pol like Trump who has previously liberal positions and said he would rely on his selection heavily, such a choice signals his own creed and what to expect in government.
He made the wrong decision in choosing Mike Pence, and from this the other campaign travails have surely followed.
According to his biographer, Trump's approach is to say as little, and to fudge as much as possible so prospects like primary voters project their own preferences on him, thus avoiding a process of elimination to remain last man standing. This is a classic sales technique and it worked in the primary.
For the conservative-leaning moderates and independents who put a GOP general election candidate over the top, there was enough in the debates to suggest a revival reminiscent of Ike or Nixon. Strong enough on defence to remain credible around the globe but not get into trouble; accepting of capitalism and the private sector but not the family destroying excesses of globalization; a nod to the religious right without turning the campaign into a referendum on Roe vs. Wade; just enough tough-talk on immigration to get media attention and a Tea Party edge.
And true enough, when it came to translating rhetoric into reality by choosing a vice-president and more, the campaign offered the job of 'making America great again' and 'foreign and domestic policy' to John Kasich. Kasich best embodies the moderate conservative character, delivered Ohio, proved his worth in government under Reagan and was the hands-down choice of voters, if not the GOP primary set, singularly leading Clinton in a one-on-one match up from the start. For these reasons Kasich was 'viewed with wistfulness by the Trump team as the perfect choice'.
But Kasich, still raw from the final days of the nominating contest, refused.
Now the Trump campaign, at sixty people only one tenth the size of Clinton's, is in a bit of a spot with only a few weeks to the convention. Without Kasich at his side or even an endorsement he can't head off the Cruz-leaning party elders looking to unbind his delegates for a convention floor upset. Nor can he expect support from the party's moderates, given his remarks on immigration and in lieu of selecting Chris Christie, who would bring enormous baggage from his time as governor and cozying with Obama. Even the last two Republican presidents said they will stay away.
With this backdrop it appears Trump- after uncharacteristic prevarication- employed the cynical power-play of old, to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, by choosing an inoffensive and pliable conservative in Governor Mike Pence of Indiana. The problem is, Pence appeals to the establishment de jour of rural social conservatives and urban free-marketers, but few others.
Aside from the fact that picking someone for who they are not rather than are is usually a poor way of selecting a leader, this has created larger campaign problems in both style and substance.
If Kasich or another well-versed moderate were in the frame Trump could now afford to take a backseat while making familiar noises about trade to the faithful on the trail. The power behind the throne meanwhile, in detail and day to day business, would be reassuringly bipartisan.
But because he has picked someone from the right whose supporters would have voted Republican anyway, it is now on Trump himself to grow the appeal of the party. That the last two presidents were unrepresentative and the Iraq War was a mistake are self-evident truths any maverick could gain traction with in a primary. But fleshing out the details would have been best left to someone else.
This is why Trump is continuing to make gaffes. His unscripted approach, once so refreshing, has become a negative story in itself as attacks on him become more precise. And it makes sense he will not follow an agenda. Because while politicians can read a speech written entirely by others as their own words, Trump struggles. I mean, 'Have you seen him? He's terrible!'
A hundred days is a long time in American politics and anything can happen. But the original plot of saving the GOP from itself will require embellishment it is unclear Trump, by himself, can deliver.