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Even Trump's surrogates are struggling in the home stretch

Even Trump's surrogates are struggling in the home stretch
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Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE is a shrewd opportunist with few principles — so his spin as a Trump surrogate is usually a good indicator of the state of “Team Trump.”

The former Georgia congressman and House Speaker's choice of a column last weekend was a call to abolish the Commission on Presidential Debates — an “engine of insider Washington establishment domination,” he charged, out to get Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden holds massive cash advantage over Trump ahead of Election Day Tax records show Trump maintains a Chinese bank account: NYT Trump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally MORE.

The Gingrich column illustrates how barren the agenda and talking points really are for the Trump forces in the final weeks of a campaign that looks lost.

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I also favor abolishing the commission — not for any bias, but rather for its rigidity and lack of any creativity. Both the presidential and vice presidential debates this fall were disappointing.

But with health care and economic crises ravaging America and a deeply polarizing politics, the commission is insignificant compared to what Gingrich did not write about in the stretch run.

Coronavirus should have been — in any normal administration, would have been — the top topic.

The president who has insisted all along the threat is exaggerated — as American deaths exceed 216,000 and will likely top a quarter million before Election Day — contracted the virus after a White House political pep rally for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettSupreme Court's Pennsylvania mail ballot ruling tees up test for Barrett Schumer says he had 'serious talk' with Feinstein, declines to comment on Judiciary role Progress, but no breakthrough, on coronavirus relief MORE that became a super spreader of the virus. The White House and the president's doctor dissembled about the particulars, and Trump endangered others in trying to show he was in great shape. He still says the virus is no big deal.

That's hard for Newt and the amen chorus to spin.

The larger COVID-19 issue isn't any easier.

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America has more deaths than any country in the world and the president admitted — on tape — that he didn't tell the country the truth.

There is an uptick in cases in more than half the states, including rising hospitalizations. Trump's current claim that COVID-19 is "disappearing" rings hollow. Just look at the numbers and the trend lines. More likely, we’re seeing the start of a fall surge as the weather changes.

Newt, who loves scapegoats, might fall back on the now-familiar Republican saw: It's China’s fault — except that every country had similar warnings about the virus that originated in Wuhan and about China's initial lack of transparency. Today the U.S. has a death rate of 66 per 100,000 — more than twice that of Canada, more than five times that of Germany and more than 60 times that of South Korea.

In the words of Gingrich's former rural constituents, that dog won't hunt.

Health care is no more promising. Obamacare, the bete noire of the Republican party for the past decade — and Trump for five years — is now a political winner, especially in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Nothing resonates more than coverage protection for people with pre-existing conditions.

But the administration is asking the Supreme Court to throw out the entire law, including the provision on pre-existing conditions.

In 45 months, Trump has yet to offer any alternative.

That's not a good column either.

On the economy, Trump repeatedly claims he has created the best economy the world has ever seen. Actually, he inherited a robust economy from Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaDemocrats make gains in Georgia Senate races: poll 'Democrat-run cities' fuel the economy, keep many red states afloat Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein MORE; it's reminiscent of the late Ann Richards’ observation about someone being born on third base and thinking they hit a triple.

The pandemic changed this. There are tens of millions out of work, layoffs abound, and hundreds of thousands of businesses have shuttered. While many economists, business executives and the chairman of the Federal Reserve (a Trump appointee) say more fiscal relief is desperately needed, the divided congressional Republicans and an erratic, off-again on-again off-again president stand in the way.

Gingrich instinctively turns to the issue that first launched him: ethics — that Democrats and liberals are shady.

Give him credit for chutzpah.

Gingrich is the only House Speaker in history to be sanctioned for ethical violations.

Later, while running for president, he railed against inside-the-Beltway lobbyists. When Bloomberg News revealed the former Speaker was on the Freddie Mac payroll to the tune of $1.6 million, Gingrich said his role was as a “historian.”

In any event, ethics isn't a winning topic in the context of Trump, who has had more than a dozen associates indicted or dismissed from office for untoward conduct. The president and his family may well face serious legal — even criminal — charges based in part on the New York Times disclosure of his tax returns, which he had refused to release.

The Times last weekend reported further that — contrary to Trump's vow to "drain the swamp" — he has turned his hotels and resorts into “the Beltway's new back rooms, where public and private business mix and special interests reign."

His surrogates invariably revert to "law and order" — often a dog whistle for race — and that Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden holds massive cash advantage over Trump ahead of Election Day Tax records show Trump maintains a Chinese bank account: NYT Trump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally MORE is a socialist. These stir up the base, but not much more.

This presidential election, both sides agree, is one of the most consequential. Yet given the alternatives, poor Newt had to zero in on a minor matter.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.