Shuffling Deck Chairs on the USS Trump

August 18, 2016

In the movie “City Slickers,” Jack Palance tells Billy Crystal that the secret of life is “One thing, just one thing. You stick to that, and everything else don’t mean s—.” When Mr. Crystal asks what that “one thing” is, the old cowboy replies, “That’s what you gotta figure out.”

As Donald Trump shakes up his campaign’s management team for the second time in two months, maybe the new crowd—and, more importantly, Mr. Trump—will finally figure out that the “one thing” of a presidential campaign is message discipline. Without it, Mr. Trump has caused controversy after controversy, generating loads of dreadful media coverage.

Since the Republican convention in July, Mr. Trump has delivered two major policy addresses. But by themselves, speeches are not nearly enough. They must be part of a comprehensive narrative that explains his views in depth, contrasts them with Hillary Clinton’s, and leads swing and undecided voters to his side. The same story must be delivered by the candidate’s appearances, advocates, advertising and other campaign activity. That’s not happening.

Take last week’s economic address in Detroit. Delivered from a teleprompter, it was generally well received. Mr. Trump outlined his agenda in broad terms, covering tax reform, trade agreements, a moratorium on new regulations and increased domestic energy production.

He should have spent subsequent days fleshing it out. For example, he could have devoted Tuesday to explaining how tax reform would create jobs and Wednesday to visiting families hurt by ObamaCare. On Thursday, after Mrs. Clinton’s own economic speech called for new “infrastructure” spending, Mr. Trump could have mocked her ideas as a return of President Obama’s failed 2009 stimulus package. Then on Friday he could have appeared with workers angry about unfair trade practices. This kind of schedule would have presented Mr. Trump with a mix of different backgrounds and surrogates in support of his theme. That’s how a successful campaign does things.

Instead, Mr. Trump lost control of the narrative with his erratic utterances. On Tuesday he told a rally that “Second Amendment people” might prevent a future President Hillary Clinton from filling Supreme Court vacancies. On Wednesday he advanced a blame-the-press story line, calling the coverage of him “disgusting” and “incredibly dishonest.” The same day, he claimed Barack Obama and Mrs. Clinton were the “founder” and “co-founder” of Islamic State. By Friday he was insisting that his remarks were “sarcastic.” (They were not.) A week that was supposed to be devoted to economics turned into a disaster.

This week has so far proceeded along the same lines. Mr. Trump started Monday with a teleprompter speech on Islamic terrorism that generated good coverage. By Tuesday he had dropped terrorism and changed the subject. Hillary Clinton, he told a Wisconsin rally, “is against the police, believe me.” But voters are not in a believing mood. They want proof.

Instead of unsettling sound bites, Mr. Trump should offer a sustained attack on the policies and failings of Mrs. Clinton—backed with evidence. He should explain how he will put the country on the right track. Even if he does everything right from here on, given his terrible mistakes so far, he may well lose in November. But if he doesn’t change tactics now, he is likely to be wiped out.

The new Team Trump should decide what message it wants Americans to hear each day. Then it must craft language and events to present that message, and convince the candidate to stick to it. The focus ought to be on the 20% of voters who are undecided or have moved reluctantly toward Mrs. Clinton, not the nearly 40% already committed to Mr. Trump.

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