Trump 2016: Sum­mer re­run or a headache-in­duc­ing new se­ries for GOP?

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - Dan Balz dan.balz@wash­post.com

It’s hard to miss Don­ald Trump these days if you go any­where near the ca­ble news chan­nels or, frankly, lots of other news out­lets. He seems to be talk­ing to ev­ery re­porter with a tele­phone or a cam­era, and when he stops talk­ing to them, they all keep talk­ing about him.

There is a sense of deja vu about all this, but with a twist. Four years ago, Trump flirted with run­ning for pres­i­dent, zoomed up in the polls, got tripped up by his birther at­tacks against Pres­i­dent Obama (and an art­ful, public skew­er­ing by the pres­i­dent). Trump soon faded from the cam­paign con­ver­sa­tion.

This time, at least, he’s a de­clared can­di­date. So the ques­tion is whether Trump 2016 is just a sum­mer re­run of an old show or the be­gin­ning of a new se­ries that be­comes a hit with the Repub­li­can base?

Many Repub­li­can lead­ers badly hope it is the for­mer. They wish the flam­boy­ant busi­ness­man would lose his luster with the media and the vot­ers as quickly as pos­si­ble. The worry is that, even if it hap­pens, it might not come be­fore he has in­flicted enough dam­age on the party’s im­age and some of the GOP’s more cred­i­ble can­di­dates for the White House to af­fect their hopes of win­ning next year.

His ap­petite for at­ten­tion is in­sa­tiable. It’s not as though there is noth­ing else hap­pen­ing in the cam­paign. Jeb Bush’s team an­nounced that he had raised $114 mil­lion — an ex­tra­or­di­nary and un­prece­dented haul this early in a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and one more sig­nal of a can­di­date who is build­ing for the long haul. Other Repub­li­can can­di­dates are criss­cross­ing the early states look­ing to gen­er­ate in­ter­est. Mean­while, Trump gets on the phone and dom­i­nates the po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion while party lead­ers cringe.

Trump finds sil­ver lin­ings in ev­ery cloud that comes his way. Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee Chair­man Reince Priebus asked him to tone down his in­flam­ma­tory re­marks about un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, and Trump took it as a call of con­grat­u­la­tions.

Last week, Trump saw more of his busi­ness em­pire suf­fer set­backs, from celebrity chefs aban­don­ing him to the PGA pulling a golf tour­na­ment from a Trump course. He made it sound al­most prov­i­den­tial, say­ing that the dam­age to his busi­ness brand would ac­tu­ally cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties for him to make even more money. By the way, if you’ve for­got­ten, he wants you to know that he’s “re­ally rich.”

His all-TV-all-the-time cam­paign for pres­i­dent is novel, though not en­tirely unique. Ross Perot’s 1992 in­de­pen­dent can­di­dacy also re­lied heav­ily on non­stop tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ances, and provoca­tive and some­times ques­tion­able state­ments about the state of the coun­try and the world. Perot’s self-con­fi­dence was enor­mous and his ego was large, though not the size of Trump’s. But like Perot, Trump has tapped into an elec­torate frus­trated, an­gry and fed up with pab­u­lum talk from reg­u­lar politi­cians.

No other can­di­date now run­ning can com­mand the at­ten­tion of the media the way Trump does, ex­cept Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton. She, how­ever, re­mains guarded and media-shy, in con­trast not just to Trump but also to nearly ev­ery other can­di­date in the field from ei­ther party.

Other can­di­dates are rais­ing money for their cam­paigns and stock­ing their su­per PACs to get their sto­ries out on tele­vi­sion. Trump is get­ting so much free time on talk that he will not have to spend down his for­tune any­time soon to spread his mes­sage.

His blus­ter and ex­ag­ger­a­tion are ready-made for to­day’s po­lit­i­cal-media en­vi­ron­ment, and he has plenty to of­fer, though it’s still mostly about him rather than the peo­ple from whom he seeks sup­port. The ques­tion of whether he is do­ing more dam­age to him­self or to the Repub­li­can Party pro­vides the ten­sion within the GOP this week­end.

Other can­di­dates would pre­fer to ig­nore him, though po­ten­tially at their and their party’s peril. There are defin­ing mo­ments and is­sues for ev­ery can­di­date in ev­ery elec­tion. Some­times those mo­ments are forced upon can­di­dates who would rather look away.

Those who seek to lead the Repub­li­can Party in 2016 will have to de­cide how great the risk of not sep­a­rat­ing them­selves, or, more im­por­tantly, their party, from where Trump stands — whether on the is­sue of immigration or any­thing else on which his lan­guage makes him or the party ap­pear ex­treme.

At this stage, long be­fore most vot­ers are pay­ing close at­ten­tion and months be­fore the first con­tests, can­di­dates pre­fer to run their own race and not worry about what oth­ers are say­ing and do­ing. They are not ready to en­gage with their ri­vals. Still, some­times si­lence is seen as ei­ther as­sent or lack of strength.

Some have ex­pressed dis­agree­ment with Trump, in var­i­ous de­grees of force­ful­ness. But more di­rect con­flict could be com­ing, par­tic­u­larly at the first Repub­li­can de­bate, to be held Aug. 6 in Cleve­land. If Trump qual­i­fies for the de­bate — he will have to file his fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure form by then; he in­sists he will meet the dead­line — it’s a cer­tainty that if none of the oth­ers on stage con­front him, the mod­er­a­tors will try to force that en­gage­ment.

For the GOP, the strate­gic cal­cu­la­tions are not as sim­ple as try­ing to shame Trump over what he has said. Hit him, and he will punch back hard. Some can­di­dates will as­sume that it is bet­ter to let some­one else do that, but who goes first? Dis­credit him within the party and the po­lit­i­cal mav­er­ick in him holds out the pos­si­bil­ity of run­ning as an in­de­pen­dent in the gen­eral elec­tion.

In a tele­phone in­ter­view with The Washington Post’s Robert Costa a few days ago, Trump would nei­ther guar­an­tee that he would sup­port the GOP nom­i­nee in 2016 nor rule out run­ning an in­de­pen­dent cam­paign. Take nei­ther state­ment to the bank. But, if he were to go the in­de­pen­dent route, he could do to the party’s nom­i­nee what many Repub­li­cans be­lieve Perot did to then-Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush in 1992, which is to help elect a Demo­crat.

Trump says he has risen to the top of the polls based on siz­able sup­port from vot­ers. In the Repub­li­can race, even those at the top of the polls do not have siz­able sup­port. No one can claim even a fifth of the GOP elec­torate at this point. The at­ten­tion Trump is get­ting in the media trans­lates to only a small frac­tion of the elec­torate.

Repub­li­cans saw all this four years ago as Trump and Sarah Palin and Michele Bach­mann and Her­man Cain all got to the top or near the top of the polls in the year be­fore the pri­maries be­gan, only to be­come non­fac­tors in the even­tual con­test for the nom­i­na­tion. The long and gru­el­ing process of run­ning for pres­i­dent is some­thing of a sur­vival-of-the fittest test. For all his bravado, Trump has yet to prove that he is ca­pa­ble of weath­er­ing that test, only that he’s happy to be a prob­lem for the Repub­li­can Party.

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