No stooping.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Trump's Power Play

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

By refusing to participate in Thursday's debate of Republican candidates, Donald Trump is casting himself as an incumbent in a race where there is none. Who else would even try to get away with that?

For incumbents, there is always a disadvantage to stooping to the level of challengers. As Russian political commentator Oleg Kashin once put it, "Debates are the public expression of doubt about the mystical nature of one's power, an expression of self-doubt." 

Politicians in the U.S. understand this. Ted Cruz wants to cut Trump down to size, so is egging him on to meet in a one-on-one debate before Monday's Iowa caucuses (two super PACs that support the Texas senator are even offering to donate $1.5 million to veterans' organizations if Trump agrees). Rick Perry, who has accompanied Cruz on the campaign trail in Iowa, refused to debate his Democratic opponent Bill White while he was governor of Texas.

U.S. candidates who won't debate feel compelled to offer justifications. Perry talked about White's failure to publish old income tax returns. Trump says he has a fairness issue with Megyn Kelly of Fox News, the sponsor of Thursday's night's event.

The explanations are always lame. They give one's opponents ammunition for accusations of cowardice. Fox News didn't miss a chance to sarcastically remind Trump that "the ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president."

Trump didn't have to give Fox that opening; an incumbent needs no excuses. No Russian president has taken part in a pre-election debate while in office. Even Vladimir Putin's single-term stand-in, Dmitri Medvedev, who wasn't, strictly speaking, an incumbent, stuck to the practice that is almost law in Russia. The only explanation he offered was, "My schedule is too tight." Putin has preferred a contemptuous silence.

Trump isn't Putin yet, but he could have said he was too busy preparing for his alternative event, which will take place in Des Moines Thursday night, at the same impressive venue where the Democrats held their pre-caucus forum. 

If you're going to behave like a boss, don't explain.

In the U.S., mandatory debates exist, for example, for elected officials in New York City, but it would be constitutionally questionable to try to impose such rules on presidential candidates. So, as in Russia, there is freedom to opt out as if one wants to float above it all.

That, of course, takes confidence. Trump's is based on ego, celebrity and opinion polls: He likes boasting about the record ratings his appearances create for television stations, and he has a strong nationwide lead in polls. This hasn't translated into actual votes yet. Many Trump supporters in Iowa have never caucused before, and there is some doubt that they will turn out in force on Monday. What if they only like Trump as a sideshow, not as a real presidential candidate?

That Trump feels safe enough to scorn debates like an incumbent without actually being one speaks volumes about his motivation. Tactically, he might be better off delaying such power plays until after Iowa, where he may lose to Cruz. No other candidate would even try it, though: Not even Cruz can be sure that if he held an alternative event, it would be well attended and lavishly covered. Trump can.  

This must give him tremendous pleasure, and he's not someone to put off gratification until he actually starts winning.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net