I have to begin by immediately offering my apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein for that title, but the lyrics from The Sound Of Music‘s “Maria” have indeed been running through my head — as I contemplate what all the other Republican candidates are going to do in the debate tomorrow night to differentiate themselves from their party’s frontrunner, Donald Trump. Especially the ever-so descriptive line: “A flibbertigibbet… A will o’ the wisp… A clown.”
How do you solve a problem like The Donald, when he’s standing center stage and everyone’s eyes are on him? How do you deal with whatever Trump says from the podium? How do you stand out from the pack and make an impression on all the voters watching?
It seems to me there are four basic strategies the other nine Republicans on the stage have to choose from: ignore Trump, outdo Trump, attack Trump or agree with Trump. Let’s examine each, as well as which candidates are likely to choose each strategy.
Some candidates will choose to debate as if Trump weren’t even on the stage. This may be the safest bet, since Trump has stated that he won’t be attacking other candidates, merely “counterpunching” if they attack him. This leaves the option of rising above the Trump phenomenon, and acting as if tomorrow night were a normal Republican debate. This means focusing on policy ideas, with some gratuitous Democrat-bashing thrown in for good measure.
I expect three candidates to attempt this route. Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and John Kasich are all vying to be the favorite of the Establishment Republican wing of the party. The Establishment Republicans would really prefer Donald Trump to just go quietly away, so candidates who ignore Trump’s presence will be signifying their solidarity with the slice of the Republican electorate who may be amused by Trump’s antics, but are still looking for a solid choice to be their party’s nominee. Bush, Walker and Kasich will all be trying to appear as serious as possible, in contrast to whatever Trump does at the debates.
Of course, this strategy may fall apart, if Trump directly engages with any of them. It’s hard to just ignore a frontal attack, especially in a political debate. If Trump notices any of the three and calls them out, they will have no real option other than to respond. You can’t ignore someone standing next to you, calling you names.
The strategy could backfire, as well. The public (and the media) may be rather dismissive of any candidate who refuses to address the reality of Trump leading the Republican field. “Taking the high road” might look a whole lot like “burying your head in the sand,” to put this another way.
Even so, ignoring Trump looks like the safest route available, if Trump allows them to use it. This won’t be the last debate, and Trump could always fade in popularity. If this happens, then candidates who avoided dust-ups with him are going to look pretty smart, in hindsight.
Modern televised debates are all about scoring that memorable soundbite — the one that gets played over and over again throughout the rest of the campaign. These can be an asset (Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy”) or a liability (Rick Perry’s “Oops”), but they do get remembered. Every presidential candidate prepares for debates by tucking a few zingers away, to be deployed at opportune moments during the big night. But this time around, the zingers are going to have to compete with Trump, who is capable of just making zingers up, right on the spot.
It wouldn’t be that hard to do, though. Come up with a line that’s funny, memorable and at the same time completely outrageous — so far out there that it’s guaranteed to be even more crazy than whatever Trump can come up with.
I can see many candidates who might make this attempt during the course of the evening, on one subject or another. But there are at least two men who may make this the centerpiece of their strategy: Mike Huckabee and Marco Rubio. Now, I realize that others may come up with different choices for this list (maybe replace Rubio with Ben Carson, for instance), but that’s my guess for now.
Both Huckabee and Rubio are struggling for attention. Both thought they’d be higher in the polls by now. Huckabee in particular has always loved saying rather extreme things in a down-home folksy voice. He had a show on Fox News, after all, and that’s essentially what he was paid to do there. Huckabee, like Trump, doesn’t usually back down from extreme things he says. So he’s my number one choice for the candidate that will try to out-Trump Trump at some point during the evening. If Huckabee can unload some statement that is so jaw-dropping that the other candidates are immediately asked about it, then he will have had a successful debate. So I look for Huckabee to center his whole strategy around trying to outdo Trump.
Marco Rubio’s not as obvious a choice to do so. Rubio’s political personality is one of explaining wonky things in plain language that leads to only one possible conclusion. He tries to make the conservative position seem so obvious that even contemplating any other way of doing things seems insane. And he’s pretty good at it, too. But Rubio has a big problem. He was seen as one of the top three candidates not so long ago. It was supposed to be Bush, Walker and Rubio at the top of the pack by now. Instead, he’s fighting in the middle of the pack, back in the mid-single digits in the polls. Rubio has seen his support steadily dwindle ever since Trump got in the race (so have all the other Republicans, for the most part, but Rubio has lost more ground than the others).
So he’s got to make a big splash. Unlike Bush and Walker, Rubio can’t afford to play it safe and just ignore Trump completely. Which is why I expect Rubio to try unloading a few zingers himself that go far beyond what Trump is saying.
Trying to out-Trump Trump may be a fool’s game, of course. Trump is bound by no rules other than those in his head, so he can always “trump” your ace by doubling down on the craziness. The story will once again be all about Trump, if he does so. The other danger with trying to outdo Trump is the possibility of turning off the public in a big way because they see your zinger as dangerously extreme. But, so far, Donald Trump has gotten a lot of voter support from being dangerously extreme, so my guess is that many candidates may at some point try to top Trump in the battle of the zingers.
Much like watching NASCAR for the crashes, this — of course — is what everyone will be tuning in to see. A full-frontal attack on Donald Trump by a candidate desperate for attention. Sadly, Rick Perry did not make the cut for tomorrow’s debate. I say “sadly” because Perry has so far been the bravest of the Republican field when it comes to calling Trump’s extremism out. It would have been much better television if Perry had been given the chance to do so in person.
But there are others out there who could conceivably try taking Trump on directly. Chris Christie is an obvious choice for this category. Christie’s whole political persona is actually pretty close to Trump’s. It might be called “belligerence equals strength” (which is a more polite thing to say than “bullying”). Christie is famous for shouting down opponents, big and small. He’s got that whole “New Jersey attitude” thing going for him, too. So he may throw the first rhetorical punch at Trump tomorrow night, in a bid for attention.
Seeing Trump and Christie go toe-to-toe would be interesting, that’s for sure. It’s the old “unstoppable force meets immovable object” sort of clash. Who would emerge victorious in the eyes of the public? Your guess is as good as mine.
The other candidate I could see getting in a serious scrap with Trump might not seem obvious at first glance. Rand Paul isn’t normally seen as a belligerent sort of guy. But whether Trump attacks him directly or not, Paul is really the only Republican on the stage who is significantly different than the rest of the field ideologically. Almost all the other candidates agree on just about every major issue, after all. Rand Paul, however, has always believed in a much more isolationist foreign policy and also has libertarian views on government snooping. Plus he’s now launched a “reach out to minorities” effort to even further differentiate himself from orthodox Republicanism. So I could see Trump starting this fight, by lighting into Paul on one issue or another, in scathing terms.
At this point, Paul would have to fight back. He likely wouldn’t try to out-shout Trump (as Christie might indeed do), but instead use his own scathing criticisms in response. Paul, like Trump, knows that his base of support loves him for who he is and therefore he’s not going to change it onstage.
Whether it’s an attack or a counterattack, poking Trump with a verbal stick is going to be very dangerous. Trump holds the support of something like one-in-four (maybe one-in-five) Republicans, if the polls are to be believed. Attacking him directly is going to annoy a big portion of the Republican primary electorate. It may gain you respect from the even-bigger portion who don’t support Trump, though. It’s risky, but the risk might pay off. That’s if Trump doesn’t eviscerate you in response, of course.
Agree with him
Trump’s support is being eyed enviously by many of the other Republican candidates, of course. One in particular is angling to pick up that support, if Trump should falter at any point. Ted Cruz has actually defended Trump, even at his most outrageous. Cruz is kissing up to Trump for one reason and one reason only — to reap his support if Trump crashes and burns. If Trump goes down, Cruz can say “I supported Donald right up to the end,” which will certainly resonate with a slice of the Trump voters.
The other person I could see playing a Trump sycophant tomorrow night is Ben Carson. Carson certainly enjoys saying outrageous things himself. He’s no stranger to controversy over extreme language, that’s for sure. So he would also be a natural second-choice for many Trump voters, should The Donald flame out at some point. Which is why I can easily see Carson either agreeing with Trump tomorrow night, or even defending him against someone else’s attacks.
There are two big risks to kissing up to Trump, of course. The first is that you are obviously following, not leading. This isn’t very presidential. The second danger is that you follow Trump right over a cliff. If Trump does blow it at some point, it’s likely going to be a pretty spectacular event (he is, after all, Donald Trump). If you have been supporting and defending Trump the whole campaign, you may get caught in the wreckage if he goes down. The trick would be to support him right up to the edge of the cliff, and then shake your head sadly and watch Trump go over the edge, by himself. But this would require precision timing, which may be impossible.
In conclusion, I do realize that pigeonholing candidates in this fashion is somewhat ridiculous, for two big reasons. The first is that nobody’s going to be required to use only one tactic against Trump. Candidates might shift from one to another multiple times throughout the evening, in fact. So even putting names to the strategies is kind of pointless.
But the second reason this is ridiculous is that here we are, measuring all the other Republicans by the yardstick that is Donald Trump. This ridiculousness is external to this column, though, so I won’t apologize for it. Sure, it’d be a better political universe if we all just treated Donald Trump like an afterthought and instead concentrated on the merits of all the serious Republican candidates. But that’s not the current reality. The current reality is that Donald Trump is the face of the Republican Party, whether the Republican Party likes it or not. Trump is getting twice what his nearest challenger is getting in some polls right now. Trump is pulling in over 20 percent with regularity. The number two and number three contenders both struggle to hit 15 percent. And the entire rest of the field — all 14 of them — are polling way, way behind in the single digits.
So, sure, “Donald Trump frontrunner” is a ridiculous thing to type. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Whether Trump was in front or someone else, presidential debates are almost always about measuring the guy in front against all the others. “Will someone knock the lead candidate out of first place?” is the question pundits always ask, no matter who the frontrunner happens to be. Since it is Donald Trump, it makes perfect sense to wonder what the other candidates are planning to do. How are they going to solve the problem of Donald Trump? Unlike Maria, marrying him off to a rich Austrian with seven kids is probably not going to be an option.
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