GWEN IFILL: This week’s challenge, to distinguish between jokes, sarcasm and reality, and to figure out the value of unconventional versus conventional politics. Tonight on Washington Week.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although, the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.
I’d call President Obama and Hillary Clinton the founders of ISIS.
MS. IFILL: Jokes? Sarcasm? Or simply changing the subject?
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) Words matter, my friends. And if you are running to be president or you are president of the United States, words can have tremendous consequences.
MS. IFILL: This was supposed to be the week where the candidates talked about the economy. And they did.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) I am proposing an across-the-board income tax reduction, especially for middle-income Americans.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) My mission in the White House will be to make our economy work for everyone, not just those at the top.
MS. IFILL: But somehow, they always returned to their war of words – over Trump’s temperament, over Clinton’s emails, and even suspected Russian hacking.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) Let me just say this in terms of the presidential campaign, this is an electronic Watergate.
MS. IFILL: Drama on every front. Covering the week, Molly Ball, national political correspondent for The Atlantic; Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; Jackie Calmes, national correspondent for The New York Times; and Michael Scherer, Washington bureau chief for TIME Magazine.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Since no one at this table has ever seen an election quite like this, I thought we’d try to divide tonight’s analysis into two categories. The conventional, and the unconventional. The conventional includes the latest polls. An NBC News/Marist poll out just this afternoon shows Donald Trump struggling in the states he needs to win – down by five points in Florida, down by nine points in North Carolina, down by 13 in Virginia, and down by 14 points in Colorado. Trump campaigned in three of those four states just this week. Any number of polls now show Clinton expanding her national lead. The results among many Republicans have been panic, which leads us to the unconventional. I asked Senator Susan Collins this week why she decided to announce now that she won’t support him.
SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): (From video.) Regrettably, I have concluded that there is not going to be a new Donald Trump, that he’s incapable of saying he’s sorry, of changing, of learning, of growing.
MS. IFILL: And there’s more. Fifty foreign policy experts signed a letter saying they would not support the nominee. Another 70 GOP activists and staffers signed another letter bemoaning what they call Trump’s divisiveness, recklessness, and incompetence. Trump says his crowds tell another story, and that voters will soon see the light on Hillary Clinton.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) She’s got the temperament of a loser. I have the temperament of a winner and we have to win again. We have to win again.
MS. IFILL: This is TIME Magazine’s cover this week: “Meltdown.” So, Michael, is it just that it’s August, or is something else going on?
MICHAEL SCHERER: It’s something more than August. It’s not a meltdown like a nuclear reactor meltdown, where there’s no way it’s ever going to be rebuilt.
MS. IFILL: Well, that’s a relief. (Laughter.)
MR. SCHERER: Where it’s is contaminating everything around them, but clearly a meltdown. There is not a Republican I’ve talked to this week that you can find who’s not worried about what’s happening. Those numbers, double digit deficits in swing states, is a big deal. Donald Trump in the last two and a half weeks has turned what should be a change election for him, in which he says I’m going to change the country where a lot of people are unhappy and make it better, into an election in which the status quo feels better, because he keeps saying things that make people nervous.
And before he can make his arguments, which are compelling – we know from before the conventions they were compelling, we know from the primaries they’re compelling, about trade, about manufacturing jobs, about globalism, about Hillary Clinton’s record – he has to be able to demonstrate that he can handle the job of president. And at the moment, he still feels like he can campaign like he did in the primaries, which is to be throwing bombs, making jokes, saying outlandish things that have a sort of viral effect in the media to get his message out. And he’s found over the last week that it’s really undercutting him.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about the conventional piece. Dan, for instance, it is not unconventional for a candidate to take advantage of resentment and people feeling like things have been taken away from them. And certainly that’s what Donald Trump is doing.
DAN BALZ: No, that’s right. I mean, Michael is absolutely right. I mean, there is an environment out there that argues for change. I mean, we’re at the end of two terms of a Democratic president. Usually you get to that period, it’s difficult for that party to hold the White House a third consecutive time. We know there is a lot of unhappiness. We know that the recovery has been quite unequal in its distribution of benefits. We know there’s resentment about the political system. All of that is out there for Donald Trump to make the argument. But he keeps making the campaign about himself rather than those other issues. And the degree to which it becomes a referendum on Donald Trump he’s put at a disadvantage.
MS. IFILL: And, Molly, it is not unusual for a candidate, like Hillary Clinton did, to get a post-convention bounce. And it’s only August, so we don’t know what – how firm that – firm – that bounce is – enduring that that bounce is.
MOLLY BALL: Well, I think what Republicans, as Michael said, are beginning to fear is that it’s more than a bounce, and that this is the new normal because Trump got a very small bounce out of his convention. It was immediately erased by the Democratic convention. And all he has done since then is exacerbate the lines of – think about the back-to-back convention messaging. The week before Donald Trump’s convention there is a massive terrorist attack in France. There’s been this drum beat of shootings and attacks both abroad and on our shores that plays into his message. And his whole message is: Look at how scary the world is. There’s crime to be afraid of. There’s terrorism to be afraid of. The following week, Hillary Clinton comes on stage and says there’s something even scarier than that – there’s Donald Trump.
MS. IFILL: Donald Trump.
MS. BALL: And the way that Trump has behaved ever since, his erratic pronouncements, his inability to back off of any controversial statement, has only underscored her message in a way that I think perpetuates the impressions people took away from that Democratic convention.
MS. IFILL: And does that message, Jackie, also allow Hillary Clinton to make a run at some of these Republicans who are nervous, or as Susan Collins said, she still isn’t supporting Hillary Clinton but she just can’t support him?
JACKIE CALMES: Right. Well, definitely allows her to make a run at them and to, you see, you know, in terms of conventional/unconventional, they both gave speeches this week on the economy. And, you know, he is giving this speech, he’s trying to appeal to the working people. And there was nothing in his speech. It was completely conventional by old Republican standards. And he claimed that it helped the working class. And she was able to come back in her speech and point out all the ways that it did not. I mean, by conservative analysts at The Tax Foundation, the top 1 percent would see a 5 percent increase in their income after taxes under Donald Trump’s plan. The middle class would be less than 1 percent. And –
MS. IFILL: And yet, they both said they were speaking to the middle class with their plans.
MS. CALMES: Right. And she – you know, and she doesn’t seem to be moving – it’s very – you know, she had to move left with the challenge from Bernie Sanders. She doesn’t seem to be overtly moving towards the center in terms of her message. But it was interesting to me in her economic speech, where she was very strong in saying she’s against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, you know, she’s still trying to get beyond the suspicion that she’s secretly for it. But she, at the same time, did not have a – she had a very pro-trade message generally. She devoted a good amount of time to extolling the benefits of free trade, despite her – you know, the takeaway line was about anti-TTP. So she’s trying to stay appealing to her base, but she’s got that. So now she’s moving more to the independents.
MS. IFILL: Well, that’s what’s not happening on the Republican side, which is moving beyond the base to the independents, or to the other party.
MS. BALL: Well, and that’s the thing that Donald Trump has always said. He’s always said that it doesn’t matter if he divides Republicans, because he is going to more than make up for that by attracting disaffected Democrats and independents and bringing new people into the electorate.
MS. IFILL: Keeps saying he’s going to get Bernie Sanders people.
MS. BALL: We saw this big group – exactly. We saw this big group formed this week, Democrats – or, Republicans and Independents for Hillary. No Democrats for Trump group has yet been formed, partly because the campaign just isn’t organized enough to put something like that together, but also because, as Jackie pointed out, rhetorically, he’s not doing anything – rhetorically or in a policy sense. He has made gestures through this campaign of policies that would break out of some of the Republican orthodoxy in a way that might actually be quite appealing to some of those disaffected Democrats, but in terms of the policies he’s rolling out, he’s not going there. And as Jackie pointed out, Hillary now has the luxury of not having to move to the center. She can stay on the left in terms of policy.
MS. IFILL: Kind of under the couch as while he does this, yeah.
MS. BALL: And Republicans are still flocking to her because they’re so alarmed by Trump.
MR. SCHERER: We spoke to him on Tuesday for our cover story. And he said, yeah, people are telling me – I’m talking to lots people, I’m listening to them, they’re telling me to be nicer, telling me to be calmer and not to campaign like I did in the primaries. And then he sort of paused and said, but I liked how I was campaigning in the primaries more. And so what’s happening is he’s sort of being betrayed by his own instincts, and his own instinct has always driven him. I mean, back in November when I spoke with him, he said my dad used to say I had a great feel for location. He was talking about real estate. He said, but it’s more than that. I knew immigration would be the issue. I knew terrorism would be the issue. And he was – he was really crediting all of his success to his gut instinct. And that gut instinct hasn’t changed, but the electorate he is trying to appeal to has changed. And he hasn’t been able to internalize that yet.
And I know the Republican Party – Reince Priebus, the chairman, other people in his campaign – have been trying, his children, working on him, talking to him, trying to explain the polls, the reality of this race. And I think it’s likely that at some point in the next few weeks, assuming these polls don’t turn around by themselves, he becomes somewhat more disciplined. The question will be, is it – is it too late at this point?
MR. BALZ: But I think if he – if he becomes more disciplined he does not – he is not true to himself, and –
MS. IFILL: When he read his economic speech, it was, to use his word, boring. I mean, he just was plowing through it and reading off a teleprompter, and it’s not what people come to see.
MR. BALZ: It offends him to be – to be boring. And so – and he likes to keep things stirred up. I mean, he was – in part of the conversation this week about what he said about the Second Amendment people – no, this was about the ISIS, being the cofounder of ISIS – he was given several opportunities to walk that back, by Hugh Hewitt in one case, and he wouldn’t do it. And beyond that, he also said, look, the way you talk about it, nobody hears it. The way I talk about it, people hear about it and they talk about it more, so –
MS. IFILL: But then today he then said one more time that he was – he was just being sarcastic, and then in the same speech said, well, maybe not that sarcastic. So he’s almost at war with himself in front of you.
MS. CALMES: And he’s there with Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican Party, who had to just be dying inside. But it goes to the point – I think it’s at what point we have to just stop – they have to just stop thinking that he’s going to change. And, you know, Republicans will say to me, well, there’s one thing he wants more than anything; it’s to win. And if this is what it takes to win, he’ll change.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about Paul Ryan. Here’s an example of a man who won by 70 points or something – (laughter) – running in his home district, and this is the person who last week we were talking about how Donald Trump is only grudgingly deciding whether to endorse him or not. And he finally did – last Friday night, he finally did. Turns out Paul Ryan didn’t need Donald Trump. In fact, a lot of down-ballot candidates are saying they do better without Donald Trump. So maybe that’s the turning point we’re waiting for.
MS. BALL: Well, to the meltdown metaphor, the nuclear meltdown metaphor, a lot of Republicans now –
MS. IFILL: Not nuclear.
MR. SCHERER: Not nuclear – not yet. (Laughter.)
MS. BALL: Let’s say it is, though, because a lot of Republicans now are wondering how far the contagion spreads and who it affects. You notice that even in that rally where he was endorsing Paul Ryan, Paul Ryan was not onstage with Donald Trump. Neither was Ron Johnson, the senator from Wisconsin who was on the ballot this fall. When Donald Trump was in Pennsylvania today, you did not see Senator Pat Toomey anywhere near there.
MS. CALMES: Oh, that’s for sure.
MS. BALL: And so you see a lot of these endorsers in name only who are saying, well, technically I’m going to vote for him, but they’re getting as far away from him as possible, both physically and in terms of the philosophical space they put between. You see them denouncing a lot of his statements. Because even though there’s a lot of evidence that voters in these states are willing to vote against Trump but for a Senate candidate, they are going to need that ticket-splitting to hold up in an unprecedented way for a lot of these Republican senators to survive.
MR. BALZ: There will – there will be a moment, and we’re not quite there yet, at which the Republican Party as a whole and all of these candidates are going to have to decide, do I run in a sense actively against Trump, just simply making the argument that Trump is going to lose, you have to protect the Republican majorities in the House and the Senate. This happened in ’96, but it happened very late in the campaign. It happened in late October. It could happen much earlier if Trump doesn’t signal and show that he’s able to turn things around.
MS. IFILL: But isn’t there a very specific brand of Trump success – Trump-specific success that candidates out there or other people could still latch onto and get some benefit out of? I mean, obviously, that’s the bet that people like Mike Pence were making along the way. It’s the bet Chris Christie was making. It’s the best Newt Gingrich was making, even though they’re not on anybody’s ballot.
MS. BALL: I think it’s less an upside bet than a downside bet. They’re afraid of annoying or angering Trump’s supporters. Trump’s supporters are so loyal. And they are not a majority of the electorate, unfortunately for Trump, but they are a good chunk of the people that you need to win in any swing state if you’re a Republican candidate. So the fear is that if you begin to actively campaign against Trump, you anger those people and they then won’t vote for you.
MR. SCHERER: Right now there’s just none of that glow that Trump is imparting to anybody else. In Wisconsin, where Trump is well behind, Paul Ryan polls above 50 percent in terms of favorability. Rob Portman, Marco Rubio in Florida, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, they’re all polling ahead of Donald Trump right now in their states. So there just hasn’t been any evidence of that yet, of that – of that broadening.
Now, if – imagine an alternate universe where Donald Trump comes out of the convention incredibly disciplined and doesn’t, say, make jokes about the “Second Amendment people” or invite Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s server.
MS. IFILL: Or mock a Gold Star parent.
MR. SCHERER: Mock a Gold Star parent. You could conceivably see that, at this point, what we would be talking about are Hillary Clinton’s emails. We would be talking about economic frustration in this country. We would be talking about this debate over trade agreements and whether we’ve gone too far in terms of globalization. And in that scenario, there could be this rosy glow. There would be an identity for the Republican Party that they could gather around and move forward. But we just don’t have anything like that.
MS. CALMES: But we did see a sign today in these state polls that have come out that – we’ve been focusing on these very vulnerable Republican senators, but Senator Richard Burr, who is not really on anybody’s radar – Republican senator from North Carolina – was down two points in a poll in North Carolina for the first time. And this is a state where Donald Trump is behind nine points. So it raises the question to people about the drag.
MS. IFILL: Today, Hillary Clinton released her tax returns, in part to goad him some more into releasing his own. But I wonder, as we talk about an unconventional year, whether that matters – whether that resonates at all with people, or whether something else has to happen for people to care about that.
MR. BALZ: I think Trump has made a bet, and it may not be a bad bet, that those kinds of conventional things that presidential candidates are expected to do don’t matter that much to the general public in an environment like this, and that he can – that he can simply get through this campaign without having to do that. It’s not clear that – if he loses this election, it’s not clear that it will have been because he didn’t put out his tax returns. There is – you know, there is a history of everybody doing it. There is an expectation of transparency that we all put on candidates. But I don’t know that Trump is necessarily wrong in concluding that this is not a fatal decision on his part.
MS. CALMES: Well, and I think the other big bet he’s making is that it’s going to be – it would be worse for him to put out his tax returns.
MR. BALZ: Well, clearly. (Laughs.)
MS. CALMES: And he’s taking – because it could very well – as Jim Stewart had his column in The New York Times today, it was about how likely it is that he paid zero in federal taxes or even claimed a loss.
MS. IFILL: What is the flipside for Hillary Clinton? What unconventional thing can she do that allows her to take advantage of some of that –
MR. SCHERER: Never have a press conference? (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Oh, that. True.
MS. BALL: That is an unconventional thing.
MS. IFILL: That’s an unconventional thing.
MS. BALL: We do see her running a very safe, conventional campaign in terms of everything from strategy to policy, the same old states on the map with maybe a couple of additions, the same old proposals – you know, outsourcing bad, minimum wage good. And I think there was a worry on the part of Democrats at some earlier juncture that she wouldn’t be exciting enough, and that the way that Donald Trump tends to suck up all the airtime might work to her detriment by just not giving her a sort of elbow into the news cycle. I think Democrats are less worried about that today because they see the effect that all the coverage is having on Donald Trump.
MS. IFILL: But maybe they’re more worried about the fact that their candidate and the candidate they’re running against are both massively unpopular.
MS. BALL: Again, I think less worried now than a few weeks ago just because of the way the polls seem to be turning against Trump.
MR. SCHERER: There’s another way. She’s not a good candidate. She’s never been a good candidate. But if the question is, are we safe with her as president? Could she handle the job? Then being boring and bland – I mean, the clip you ran earlier where she says, I want an economy that works for everyone, the economy has never worked for everyone. I mean, it’s like the worst political cliche you could offer.
MS. IFILL: That’s why we used it, by the way. (Laughter.) We like political cliches.
MR. SCHERER: And so much of what she says is like that. It’s like the – it’s the blandest, most broadly-appealing pablum that they can come up with. And if you – she was running against a strong candidate, that would be a problem for her. But if she’s running against someone that people are worried about being stable, the person who sounds like every other politician you’ve ever heard and never really liked that much is maybe not a bad bet.
MS. IFILL: Here’s another unconventional thing. So you could not turn on a television in Cleveland or Philadelphia at the conventions or while watching the Olympics and not see a Hillary Clinton ad. We have seen goose-egg adds from Donald Trump, not a dime spent. And is that part of a strategy, or is it just that he doesn’t want to spend the money?
MR. BALZ: Well, he clearly doesn’t want to spend the money, because he’s got the money to spend.
MS. IFILL: Well, OK, so what’s the – what’s –
MR. BALZ: I think it’s an indifference. I think it’s – I think it is his belief that he’s found a different way to communicate with people. And clearly, during the primaries, he was correct about that. He was able to dominate the conversation. He was able to get all of his points across. He was able to smother everybody else simply by using, you know, television and cable.
MS. IFILL: Except he’s got one person attacking only him this time.
MR. BALZ: You know, the question we can’t –
MS. IFILL: Unanswered.
MR. BALZ: The question we can’t answer at this point is, are these polls moving because of the advertising that she’s running, or are they moving because of things Trump is doing to himself? I’m sure the Clinton campaign will say the advertising is moving numbers, but that’s an unanswerable question right now.
MR. SCHERER: There’s a lot of really interesting political science that’s been done over the years looking at political advertising spending that has basically concluded that it doesn’t really matter what’s in the ads as long as you’re basically spending about the same amount on both sides; it evens itself out. The only time advertising really has a dramatic effect in terms of moving numbers is when one side can spend much more. And this is in a – in a(n) average race. So I think there’s a strong political science argument that being unopposed; and you have those ads run; and all those ads are about his character, his qualifications, his ability to handle the job of president, his ability to say things that won’t offend your children – I mean, they’re speaking right to these competency issues – that I think it just gets people thinking about that stuff in their head. Imagine you’re turning on the Olympics, you see that ad and then you see an ad about the Clinton Foundation, or you see an ad about outsourcing of jobs to Mexico, the stuff that Trump wants to be talking about. The viewer’s brain wouldn’t just be focused on that topic.
MR. BALZ: I think part of the issue is, do those ads mean that it just keeps a ceiling on him and prevents him from getting voters who he really needs? I mean, his core is going to be there. As you say, I mean, they’re loyal.
MS. BALL: Well, and the numbers here are really stunning. I mean, Donald Trump is being outspent 52 million (dollars) to zero in television ads, and that’s not counting the 30 million (dollars) that Hillary Clinton’s allies are also spending on her behalf. That is a crazy number. Donald Trump put out a statement that was very confusing about his fundraising at the time of the fundraising deadline a couple of weeks ago, but we still haven’t seen the actual FEC report that would tell us what he is spending that money on and where it is going in terms of the different committees.
MS. IFILL: He says he’s raising it for the party, not necessarily for himself.
MS. BALL: And we’ve heard him throughout the primaries speculate about the inefficacy of television ads, saying that they didn’t hurt him in the primaries.
MS. IFILL: Quickly.
MR. SCHERER: He did say in the interview with TIME this week that he was going to start spending soon. I don’t know whether it’ll be significant or substantial, or both, or –
MS. IFILL: He also said he was going to definitely do all three debates, which we’ll talk about soon in the webcast, because we’re out of time for now. Thanks, everybody.
But it’s – but we’ll keep yakking about all of this online. That’s the Washington Week Webcast Extra. And if you’re loving the Olympics, be sure to check out our piece on the athletes who used Olympic gold as a springboard to politics, of all things. You can find that at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
Keep up with daily developments with me and Judy Woodruff over at the PBS NewsHour. And we’ll see you here next week on Washington Week. Good night.