Close your eyes for a second and go back to October 2012. Mitt Romney, engaged in a pitched fight to unseat President Barack Obama, is campaigning hard as the election closes, drawing major crowds and inspiring Republican visions of a White House takeover.
Now imagine, as Romney campaigns, that a story breaks detailing how his onetime company, Bain Capital, took $17 million in insurance money for business damages that it very likely had not incurred. It would be a scandal. Romney’s ethics would be questioned. The campaign would come to a halt for a bit.
OK, ignore the insurance fraud. Let’s say as Romney was campaigning down the stretch, a story broke that his super PAC, Restore Our Future, was caught discussing how to secretly funnel illegal donations from a Chinese source into its coffers. Watchdog groups would be in an uproar. Obama’s campaign would pounce and Romney would be forced to condemn the group immediately, lest he seem like he was benefiting from foreign money.
Let’s say that neither the Chinese donations nor the insurance fraud happened in our re-imagining of the 2012 election. Instead, an article was published in the closing days of the race saying Romney had held parties with underaged girls and cocaine. OK. That’s impossible to imagine. Let’s say the article reported that he’d openly discussed trying to pick up John Travolta’s wife, Kelly Preston, just days after the couple’s 16-year-old son had died. You’re right ― again, impossible to imagine.
How about this: An article came out showing that Romney had used his campaign funds to purchase his own book, No Apology, and then turn around and sell that book at a massively hiked-up price to the very donors who were giving to him in the first place. That could have happened in this altered rendering of 2012. And if it had, Romney would have been viewed as callous, at a minimum, and deceitful at worst.
Of course, none of it happened to Romney. As you’ve likely concluded, each one of these stories has popped up about Donald Trump in just the last few days. And they all have had marginal impact at best; disappearing, as Warden Norten would say, “like a fart in the wind.”
That may be because they’ve been overshadowed by the broader controversies orbiting Trump’s campaign: the continued accusations of sexual assault and his routine skepticism about the election’s legitimacy. That may be because other items have sucked some oxygen from the room, such as the publication of the hacked emails of Hillary Clinton campaign chief John Podesta, or the expected sharp rise in premiums for health insurance plans sold on Obamacare exchanges.
But in the end, the practical impact is the same.
Trump is not Teflon. Cumulatively, these stories have caused damage. He is very likely going to lose the election, and by a margin far greater than Romney did. But he will have fundamentally moved the Overton Window for what qualifies as scandalous behavior for a presidential candidate.
That might bring some positives with it in the long run, such as helping wash away some of the puritan sensibilities and standards we have about how politicians should behave. But it will also launch a whole new genre of campaign rationalizations for bad behavior (Trump, remember, will end this campaign having never released his tax returns ― a first for a nominee since the days of Nixon).
It will be a while, if ever, before a candidate like Trump runs for president again. But future candidates for president will get graded against Trump. And that will make actual “gaffes,” like the variety that Romney committed ― “binders full of women” comes to mind ― look positively quaint in comparison.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.