paul ryan house gop presser 022718
Ryan: Both candidates ran as conservatives
01:14 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is author of the book, “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

CNN  — 

The White House and Republican leaders are struggling to paper over the failure of their candidate for the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, painting the strong showing of his Democratic challenger as a kind of victory for President Donald Trump’s agenda.

House Speaker Paul Ryan called Democrat Conor Lamb a “pro-gun, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservative.” And White House spokesman Raj Shah told reporters Lamb had “really embraced the President’s policies and position, where he didn’t embrace Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leader.”

What this leaves out is that the outcome in Pennsylvania was a verdict on Trump.

Saccone is trailing Lamb with 100% of Election Day and absentee votes counted. Lamb has claimed victory – but Saccone has refused to concede.

Lamb’s campaign strategy clearly worked, whether Ryan is correct of not about its details. And Trump’s approach evidently did not.

Donald Trump had hoped to pull a “heads I win, tails you lose” trick with this election. But voters made certain that he couldn’t pull it off. The President’s old magic no longer works.

Trump had left no doubt about the game he was playing when he made candidate Rick Saccone’s Saturday rally in Pennsylvania all about himself. “This is a very big race” he declared as he praised himself and urged his supporters to show the world they still backed the Trump agenda.

Clearly he was hoping he could prove the pundits wrong and propel his man to victory. But the very next day he distanced himself from Saccone – a four-term state Representative – and the impending result, privately complaining that his man was a weak candidate.

Trump’s trick was also a gamble that depended on the public ignoring the obvious fact that anything short of a big Saccone win would be a humiliating loss for the President. Everyone remembers that Trump is the man who crows about how he’s a super intelligent competitor and knows more about winning than anyone. Anything less than complete and total annihilation could only be, horror of horrors, loss.

Now, if he says or tweets anything at all in the aftermath of Tuesday’s humiliating outcome for him and his party, it will almost certainly be to blame it on Saccone’s miserable performance – and that chorus has already begun, with White House sources telling CNN, for example, that Saccone was a “weak candidate” who “decided to run scared” instead of run hard.

In a resolutely red district, the Republican should have breezed to victory. In coming days, expect Trump to offer some version of “I tried to lift him higher, but he was too heavy.”

Trump’s Pennsylvania gambit revealed much about a man who is most comfortable playing the role of a salesman and marketer whose only product is himself. This “it’s-always-about-me” point of view explains, for example, the insulting way he ditched Rex Tillerson on Tuesday – the Secretary of State apparently learned he was fired via a tweet from his boss – and it explains how Trump framed the special election to make himself look good no matter what.

After all, as a private businessman who knew little about many of the industries he joined, including air travel, gambling, and consumer goods, Trump’s approach has long been based on the idea of wooing customers and investors to what his gilded persona represented. Although many of these businesses failed, Trump enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle and ever-increasing public attention. And those who were burned the worst by his bankruptcies, most notably bond buyers and other investors, might refuse to buy a second time, but Trump never seemed much interested in their repeat business.

Winning the White House thrust Trump into the center of a new sort of game, where his customers (the American people, this time) could see what he was doing, and true success would require that he do some repeat business to get re-elected in 2020.

Trump measures his 2020 viability by what he sees in the polls and on the TV news. Both have given him a scare. For this reason, he was as desperate to see Saccone win as he was to see Roy Moore win the Senate race in Alabama last December. Despite his failure there, Trump couldn’t resist the opportunity to try to grab some credit in Pennsylvania.

What this calculation ignored is that in the last election, in 2016, Saccone won his seat in the Pennsylvania House by a margin of 70 to 30 over the Democrat. This meant that he outperformed the great performer himself (Trump won the district by 19 points).

Saccone’s poor showing Tuesday could be credited to the superior effort of his opponent. However, the 33-year-old Lamb had never run for office before, started at a distinct disadvantage in the heavily Republican district, and was unknown to most voters when he started his run.

Instead of blaming Saccone or crediting Lamb, it makes far more sense to consider that the President’s performance in office was the key factor in Pennsylvania. Having purchased what Trump was selling once, Americans have been carefully assessing what their votes bought.

Trump’s main product has been a tax cut primarily benefiting the rich, and one which only one-quarter of voters have noticed in their paychecks. Besides this vague achievement, Trump has offered alarming rhetoric and bold proposals that get quietly walked back.

The two most recent examples include a pledge to defy the National Rifle Association on gun regulation, which was followed by a policy that could have been crafted by the NRA, and a commitment to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which was followed by the announcement of conditions that threw the whole prospect of a summit into doubt.

Now that the election results are in, the outcome is clearly about Trump, and there’s no reasonable way to spin it so that the President looks good. (The same is true, by the way, of Tillerson’s exit.)

Thousands of voters who bought what Trump sold in 2016 didn’t this time around. For a President who must do a great deal of repeat business in 2020 with the people who supported him once, this is nothing but bad news.