America loves to give people — and especially struggling candidates — a second shot. We love comeback kids, and almost every four years, we go out of our way to ensure the presidential race has some drama in it. Case in point: After Romney’s supposedly “game-ending” 47 percent comment, the beleaguered Republican pulled off a strong performance in the first debate — and we the people started the game all over again. Even in 1984, when Reagan was supposed to be the last great landslide in presidential elections, he stumbled in the first debate — and we opened the door, if briefly, to his challenger, Walter Mondale.
What could cause America to give Donald J. Trump, who currently has a meager 12 percent chance of winning the White House this November, a real shot? Contrary to most conventional wisdom, I believe his venture to Mexico was a good start.
For truly undecided voters, the stagecraft was probably persuasive: The would-be head of state, in his dark suit, shaking hands with a real-life head of state — and then taking place at a podium alongside him. Just as the Hollywood upstart Ronald Reagan gained stature merely by appearing on the same stage with the then-president, Jimmy Carter, during their 1980 debate, the image the Donald projected matters. Even today, and even amid the meeting’s devolution on Twitter.
Many in the Never Trump crowd would call me crazy — meeting with President Nieto was a sham from the very beginning, showmanship turned into farce, they’ll say. They will point out, rightly, that no substantive policy connected to a wall, or anything else, came from it.
While I understand that perspective, some undecided and potential swing voters don’t see it that way. Instead, they see a leader who went to Mexico and engaged with another head of state — and adversary, to boot. For every liberal calling the trip muddled and silly, there is a high-profile Trump supporter praising it. John Bolton, the former United States Ambassador to the UN, called the foray an “outstanding success.” Fox News’ Charles Krauthammer praised Trump for taking a risk and pulling it off — and even dominating.
The visit caps a good turn for Trump. Since shaking up his campaign and naming political strategist Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager, he’s become a more effective candidate, one who’s put his Khan quagmire behind him. And the polls suggest Americans are giving him a second look: The latest from Fox News, Reuters and NBC NewsSurveyMonkey show the race tightening, with Hillary Clinton’s lead shrinking to as little as 2 percentage points. Just as significantly, three battleground states worth 39 electoral votes have all moved meaningfully in his direction, especially after the convention bump — North Carolina, Iowa and Ohio.
Americans like a good race, and the fact is, Trump and Conway are bringing another one into the world. To be sure, 2016 could turn out to be another ’96 or ’88, with the challenger so hapless that he can’t leverage the public’s hunger for a close race. But I doubt that: There is enough Hillary hesitation, animus and, yes, sexism to make this race close at least for a bit longer.
What’s more, Trump still has a few potential cards to play, even above and beyond a strong debate performance later this month. What if, for example, he wooed over an unexpected and largely bipartisan figure — a modern-day Lee Iacocca or Condi Rice — to acknowledge his strengths? Or what if he more actively deployed his popular daughter Ivanka in such states as Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and even Michigan? What if he took a risk and did an all–Black and Brown debate jointly sponsored by Univision and BET and disagreed with some of his strongest detractors but was seen as willing to engage?
Fat chance, you say? That is exactly what you would have said if we told you two weeks ago that the president of Mexico would invite Trump down — much less get anything for it. So stay tuned. Presidential races are full of surprises, from Dewey versus Truman and Gore versus Bush to Palin versus the world. This race is no different, and Trump is in the process of getting a fresh chance. Let’s see what he does with it.
What do you think?