World·Analysis

'He just prefers to fire at himself': Trump's self-inflicted wounds give Clinton campaign a reprieve

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has been given a reprieve from the media spotlight as her political opponent Donald Trump continues to generate headlines and dominate the news cycle with a series of controversial statements.

Clinton obeys cardinal rule of politics: Stay out of the way while rival unravels

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has largely been obeying a cardinal rule of politics, says American University professor of government David Lublin. 'When your opponent is in the process of destroying himself, stay out of the way.' (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

This past weekend, Hillary Clinton handed her presidential rival Donald Trump a political gift by going on Fox News Sunday and, at least according to some fact-checkers, being less than candid in her comments regarding her email scandal.

PolitiFact gave her its lowest "pants on fire" rating while the Washington Post awarded her "four Pinocchios" for some of her remarks.

Had the Republican nominee been one of Trump's defeated rivals, Clinton's claims would be leading newscasts and "knocking the wind out of any post-convention bounce she earned in Philly," wrote Meet the Press host Chuck Todd and NBC political reporter Carrie Dann.

"Instead, a debate about Trump's lack of empathy for a Gold Star family and a crisis in the GOP is crowding out what should be a solid hit on the Democratic nominee," they wrote for NBC's political blog First Read

So, instead of running with that gift, Trump decided to give his rival one (or a few) of his own.

For starters, he hasn't ended his public spat with the Muslim family of a dead U.S. soldier who spoke out against him at the Democratic convention last week. Trump's refusal to back down ensured he overshadowed any news about Clinton's dubious claims that she's been totally honest about whether she used her private email server to handle classified material as secretary of state.
Donald Trump's comments about the family of a fallen soldier have angered voters and members of the Republican Party. 2:09

Trump followed that up with more controversial statements that generated one headline after the other. 

He claimed the general election will be rigged, that Clinton is "the devil," that his daughter could just find another job if she was sexually harassed, that he won't yet endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan or Arizona Senator John McCain in their primary races.

Trump dominated the headlines — even an off-the-cuff remark about getting a crying baby "out of here" at one of his rallies became a story.

Violates cardinal rule of politics

And it all meant that Trump was violating one of the cardinal rules of politics, said Stuart Rothenberg, founding editor and publisher of The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. Trump was making the election a referendum on his own shortcomings, not his opponent's.

"You almost never want to make the election about you, particularly when you are controversial," Rothenberg said. "The more you talk about yourself, the less time you're talking about and letting the media focus on your opponent's weaknesses."

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has generated a spate of controversial headlines over the past few days. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

And Clinton has some major challenges as a candidate, with record-level negatives in the public's view (only Trump's are higher) and significant voter trust issues. While the email scandal remains a weak spot for Clinton, questions have also been raised about the Clinton Foundation and money contributed by foreign donors during her time as secretary of state. 

As well, recently released GDP numbers show growth in the last quarter was just 1.2 per cent, weaker than the forecasts of most analysts and bad news for a candidate whom many see as running for President Barack Obama's third term.

Clinton's record as secretary of state is also full of potential fodder for Trump, as is the fact she hasn't held a news conference in nearly 250 days.

'Plenty of ammunition'

Yet none of that has been getting much attention because Trump's comments on other subjects ensure he sucks up the media oxygen. 

"There's plenty of ammunition he has. He just prefers to fire at himself than Hillary Clinton," Rothenberg said.

And when he makes these comments, "reporters are just going to cover that first because it's so outrageous, it's so over the top."

Even some of Trump's biggest supporters, like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, say Trump's comments are just helping Clinton.

"The current race is which of these two is the more unacceptable, because right now neither of them is acceptable," Gingrich told the Washington Post. "Trump is helping her to win by proving he is more unacceptable than she is."

Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said Trump must focus his criticism back on Clinton because she isn't a great candidate and has problems connecting with American voters. 

"However, if he keeps up intra-party fights, and trying to settle scores, it will keep the media coverage on whether or not Trump is fit to be president instead of making it a referendum on Clinton's failures as a leader."

'Stay out of the way'

David Lublin, a professor of government at American University's School of Public Affairs, said Clinton should not have gone on Fox News, especially without better answers to the email questions. 

But for the past few days, he said, she has largely been obeying another cardinal rule of politics.

"When your opponent is in the process of destroying himself, stay out of the way," he said.

Indeed, Obama's former senior adviser and chief political strategist David Axelrod tweeted some advice for Clinton.

"If I were @Hillary Clinton, I might embark on summer tour of America's splendid national parks & cede the stage entirely to @realDonaldTrump."

About the Author

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press

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