Axelrod: Can new team cure what Ailes Trump?

Story highlights

  • David Axelrod: Trump aims to revive slipping campaign with combative team, including Roger Ailes and Brietbart exec
  • He says Trump can fire their missiles, but where will they land? Trump has repeatedly hurt himself with off-the-wall behavior

David Axelrod is CNN's senior political commentator and host of the podcast "The Axe Files." He was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)About a half century ago, a journeyman ballplayer named Rocky Bridges made his debut as the manager of the San Jose Bees, a desultory California League team.

The day was marred, however, when the hapless Bees missed signs, dropped balls and were generally routed.
    "I managed good," a frustrated Bridges recalled in a Sports Illustrated profile, "but boy did they play bad."
    All of this is to say: good luck to Donald Trump's new managers.
    Trapped in what appears to be a political death spiral, the bilious billionaire has once again shuffled his leadership team.
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    Paul Manafort, a veteran political operative who took over in the spring from the loyal but volatile Corey Lewandowski, apparently has been shoved aside for a new ruling junta.
    We're told that Manafort will also be part of the junta. But having been an adviser to deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Philippines strongman Ferdinand Marcos, Manafort surely recognizes a coup when he sees one.
    In fact, a new public focus on his role with Yanukovych, a Kremlin-favorite now in exile in Russia, may have sealed Manafort's destiny in Trump's orbit.
    But in fairness, Trump's precipitous slide in the polls since the conventions in July could hardly be blamed on the manager.
    Hours after the gavel fell at the Democratic convention, Trump kicked off a dizzying 10-day spasm of off-the-wall comments and tweets that seemed to confirm the thesis advanced by the Democrats in Philly: He's not ready for the nuclear codes.
    Here is a partial list of Trump's greatest post-convention hits: Attacking a Gold Star family who appeared at the Democratic convention; dissing House speaker Paul Ryan before reversing course and endorsing him; trying to kick a crying baby out of a rally; muffing questions on Russia's occupation of Crimea; joking about winning the Purple Heart the easy way; suggesting the election might be "rigged;" and calling Hillary Clinton "the devil."
    I am certain that none of this came at the suggestion of Paul Manafort, though Manafort gamely defended his man in the ensuing uproar. But there really was no adequate defense.
    Attempts by the campaign to tether Trump to a TelePrompTer and script provided only intermittent relief. Arming him with charts to discipline his presentations also failed.
    Trump's appalling distemper following a well-executed Democratic convention transformed what had been, at least in polling, a relatively close race.
    White, college educated voters -- a group Mitt Romney carried by 12 points in 2012 -- now give Clinton a sizable edge. Having walled himself off from the minority voters who will comprise some 30% of the electorate, Trump can ill afford that loss.
    As a result, Clinton has opened wide leads in many critical battleground states, including Pennsylvania, that Trump must win to traverse his already narrow path to 270 electoral votes.
    This is why credible forecasting models now give Trump, a self-proclaimed habitual winner, just a one-in-ten chance of winning the presidency.
    Now he has brought in a new management team, led by Stephen Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs banker and chairman of Breitbart News. Bannon has never run a campaign at any level, much less one for president, which is a highly complex and specialized challenge.
    His new governing partner, Kellyanne Conway, has extensive campaign experience -- but as a pollster, not a manager.
    Trump also reportedly is consulting Roger Ailes, the former CEO of Fox News who was recently forced out amid sexual harassment charges, to help coach him for the impending presidential debates.
    Ailes is what the other new additions are not.
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    A wily and combative veteran of presidential campaigns dating back to Nixon, he was the architect of George H.W. Bush's historic comeback from a 17-point deficit in the summer of 1988 to a landslide electoral victory in the fall.
    The brutal, negative ad campaign Ailes ran against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis remains a classic of political advertising.
    Ailes knows campaigns, television and presidential debates, which could be an asset to Trump. Stellar debate performances may now be his only chance.
    But that would presume the candidate's ability to listen, work, study, internalize and execute, a capacity we have not seen in this campaign.
    The presence of Ailes, whose edgy television channel became a rallying point for conservatives, and Bannon, whose right-wing news website is also notoriously pugilistic, portends a bloody fall campaign. And in the ever-combative Trump, they will find a willing deliverer of missiles.
    The question with Trump is always, where will they land?
    Even if Trump were adding the greatest political team in history, which he is not, the problem is not the campaign. The problem is the candidate, whose allergy to substance and impulse to react angrily -- and often tastelessly -- to any provocation has unnerved voters.
    In the primaries, his "shoot first, ask questions later" style was enough to ignite his base, but that very quality has become a liability now that he has to expand beyond it.
    Maybe "Trump Team Three" has the magic elixir.
    More likely, however, they will be left shaking their heads like old Rocky Bridges as they watch their candidate play.