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