Keep Trump comments in perspective

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charlie dent pennsylvania support for trump gop lead tapper intv_00022614

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    GOP Rep.: I'm not voting for Trump or Clinton

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GOP Rep.: I'm not voting for Trump or Clinton 05:44

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  • Timothy Stanley: Trump's goal is to nail down a base, grow it a little and then get it to turn out in huge numbers
  • But controversy over his various statements is distracting from debate over more pressing issues, he says

Timothy Stanley, a conservative, is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Donald Trump has had a terrible few days. He has been sucked into a row with a Muslim Gold Star family, the Khans; criticized strongly by John McCain; and branded "unfit" for high office by President Barack Obama.

This might be the worst start to a fall campaign since 1972, when George McGovern was forced to drop a running mate who admitted to having received electric shock therapy. McGovern's crisis solidified impressions that he was a dolt and a ditherer -- that he was unpresidential. But we live in different times. Standards are much lower. For Trump to get this far suggests a significant proportion of the electorate just doesn't care whom he offends.
    Timothy Stanley
    Let me play devil's advocate, on the understanding that I am defending the devilish -- just one of many epithets that Trump has used for Clinton. The Democrats, the media and certain disaffected Republicans have been quick to jump on Trump, and he's given them a lot of material. But have they been entirely fair?
    For a start, the Khan family were not the only people representing someone who died in service to the United States at this year's conventions. The Republicans featured Pat Smith, who lost a son in the Benghazi raids. Her speech, like the Khans', was highly personal and damning of the opposing nominee -- and both were exploitations of grief by political parties that ought, frankly, to be ashamed of themselves for using other people's suffering to get votes.
    Yet while Smith's speech has been rarely mentioned since, the Khans have emerged as far more eloquent critics of Trump than Clinton herself.
    That's partly because of the way Trump chose to answer Khizr Khan's criticisms: a) to suggest that he, too, had sacrificed a lot and b) to imply that Ghazala Khan might have been silent out of submission to her Islamic faith.
    But for all Trump's clumsiness on this front -- which, yes, might in itself disqualify him from the role of commander in chief on the grounds of temperament -- the fuss distracts from the bigger questions that really matter. Remember that Hillary Clinton voted for the war the Khans lost a son in. That should be a far bigger deal than it is. Vet Trump's remarks; correct him when he gets it so wrong. But the question of when it's right or wrong to intervene and who owes whom an apology over Iraq is surely a much more important matter than this. Khizr Khan himself is on record as saying that wars in the Middle East have left America more vulnerable. He's right. But it just isn't being discussed.
    It's a more important subject, too, than the fact that Trump appeared to ask a woman with a crying baby to leave his rally -- plainly a bit of banter, by the way. Or that his wife once posed for Sapphic topless photos. Or that Obama thinks Trump is just a terrible, terrible person.
    These are irrelevant in part because they distract us from analyzing the substance of Trump's message, but also because they are good examples of how everything liberals perceive to be a negative about Trump actually works as a positive among his own people. What do they translate into in the minds of many conservatives? That Trump, like everyone else, hates being interrupted by screaming infants. That Trump's wife is hot and unashamed of it. And that anyone who Obama thinks is unfit for the presidency must be getting something right.
    So yes, Trump has shot himself in the foot several times -- and that's reflected in polling that puts Clinton comfortably ahead nationally. But the model of a campaign that he's working to isn't the kind of model that sunk past contenders. His goal is to nail down a base, grow it a little and then get it to turn out in huge numbers.
    Whether that strategy works, it means that every time the Democrats or media think they've wounded Trump, he'll just keep on fighting. And, by his own logic, he should. If Trump was to admit a mistake and apologize for it, he'd shatter his own narrative of eternal invincibility. This crudeness, love it or loathe it, is the only way he'll win.
    Meanwhile, the country is denied the kind of debate it deserves. I'm far more interested to hear how Trump is going to finance his latest proposal of spending more than $500 billion on infrastructure. Or what Clinton has to say in light of the Khan controversy about her own foreign policy. She has been at the heart of a series of gross errors that have cost lives. She backed Iraq. She was at the helm during Libya. And she is now accused of overseeing the financing of rebel forces in Syria.
    Compared to all of that, Trump University is very small fry indeed.