Taking On Donald Trump May Be a Key Step in Getting to the Oval Office

A candidate looks presidential by showing strength—so attacking the campaign’s 800-pound gorilla makes sense. But there are definitely risks.

Businessman Donald Trump speaks to guests gathered for the Republican Party of Iowa's Lincoln Dinner at the Iowa Events Center on May 16, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

No matter how glittering the political resume, getting elected U.S. president remains one of the great challenges on the planet. As Bill Clinton explains it, presidential candidates must not only make voters see them as a plausible president, but as an actual president, leaping resolutely and inexorably over the hurdles of the election process until it is time to stroll the stage to the tune of “hail to the chief.”

Another favorite Clinton adage is that candidates have a better chance to win over voters by being strong and wrong than by being right and weak. What links the two is the concept of strength. Strength defines, as much as anything else, the terms of winning the American presidential contest, and as such it’s an integral part of the tactical arsenal. Veteran Republican strategist Alex Castellanos says that candidates must constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to show “moments of strength,” which effectively allow the public to imagine a White House aspirant truly occupying the Oval Office, and managing the myriad burdens thereof.

Indeed, strength might be the defining factor in the 2016 presidential cycle so far. Scott Walker, who surged early in 2015 and has maintained a sturdy standing in an increasingly crowded field, has built his entire narrative around the theme of staunchly standing up to unions and other liberal interests in Wisconsin, including battling for election, recall survival, and re-election.

Stump Trump: How Can GOP Rivals Take on 'The Donald?'

Dr. Ben Carson’s biography has innumerable compelling elements, but for many voters his identity as both an outspoken conservative and African-American (along with his high-profile confrontation with President Obama over health care) show implicit and impressive strength. The low-key Carson (who has not been a conspicuous daily presence on the campaign trail, to say the least), continues to maintain support from about 10 percent of the Republican electorate nationally.

Ted Cruz and Rand Paul each make relentless plays to show strength by challenging not just Democrats, but GOP leaders as well. Both senators owe some of their national success to the muscular political risks they have taken in defying the status quo.

Carly Fiorina has received some of her most favorable press coverage and reactions from voters when she has used aggressive rhetoric to take on Hillary Clinton and when she has talked about how the power of her personal faith has seen her through her life's hardest moments, including the death of her daughter from drug abuse. 

Rick Perry has received a slew of favorable notices, including a stirring and laudatory editorial in the Wall Street Journal, for a speech he gave last week in Washington in which he called out his party for failing to assiduously seek support from African-American voters and lead the way for inclusion and understanding. Perry’s move was bold, aggressive, mostly unexpected – and thus made him the campaign’s strongman of the day.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders’ recent colossal success has been driven by an accumulating series of self-propelling moments of might: supplying straight talk on the stump, standing up to special interests, displaying clarity and confidence—all of which has led to big crowds, increased media attention, higher poll numbers, more exposure, and still bigger crowds. Nothing looks stronger than an underdog having sustained success against a frontrunner.

Which brings us to Donald Trump. Much (but, paradoxically, not enough) is made of the phenomenon by which Trump has been able to attract oodles of news coverage, over the course of decades, in the realms of business, entertainment and politics. In past election years, when he seemed to be flirting with a presidential bid, his every interview drew more spin-off coverage than many White House aspirants draw in a month, or, in some cases, their entire campaigns.

Now that Trump is an official candidate, his capacity to drive the news cycle is even greater. Stipulated that Trump is very far from a perfect person. But when much of the commentariat focuses on his flaws, they often neglect to address his genuine gifts as a 21st century politician. Watch Trump spend time with voters and you can’t miss that they respond not just to his fame, but to his flashy confidence, his bullish desire to stand up to anybody who crosses him or crosses the US of A. Haters will hate, mockers will mock, but his brash declarations that he and everything he touches are the Best is—for his supporters, which a CNN poll last week put at 12 percent of the Republican electorate—the embodiments of success through strength.

To the other candidates, therefore, Trump represents a target of opportunity‑because there’s no better way to show strength than by attacking a potent rival. And with Trump, of course, there’s much to attack. Politically, he’s given financial support to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, flirted with single-payer health care, supported tax increases, embraced the birther movement. But that’s not even half of it. More businessperson than politician, more celebrity than authority, more bluster than substance, more ego-trip than leadership—or so goes the standard (and semi-blind) dismissal of his candidacy. Take down the pompadoured giant with the glass jaw and look like the powerful king of the world.

But it’s not so simple. When he was a businessman and pure tabloid fodder, hitting Trump condemned you to an onslaught of sticks and stones--annoying and perhaps distracting but generally not a threat to one’s professional advancement. But as a presidential candidate, he has an even bigger megaphone. Anything that he says is instantly national news, which, for his rivals, makes attacking him an extraordinarily risky proposition.

No major candidate has yet shown him or herself willing to face a mud wrestling match with one of the world’s great mud wrestlers (a spectacle that would drown out not just a substantive message, but pretty much every other political story imaginable), nor risk incurring a potential multimillion dollar negative TV ad campaign fueled by Trump’s billions or his wrath on the debate stage. And once he’s brushed off the blow, he’ll head straight to Twitter and to his welcoming friends on FOX News and inform an audience that has enjoyed him for years, just what a loser you are.

Until Trump implied in his announcement speech a few weeks ago that a significant number of illegal Mexican immigrants are criminals sent to the United States by their native government, his Republican rivals did their best to ignore him, basically offering up mild, gracious pleasantries about his entry into the race, sidestepping media invitations to belittle Trump’s candidacy as a lark that undermined the overall seriousness of the field.

Even after Trump’s immigration comments blew up as a major controversy (even as his poll numbers have ticked up in the aftermath), most of his Republican rivals have stayed relatively quiet. Three candidates – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Rick Perry – took him on aggressively, and derided his remarks (things got personal for Bush, whose wife Columba is from Mexico), but without incorporating a wider repudiation of Trump and his candidacy. Even Chris Christie, no stranger to seizing moments for self-aggrandizing shows of strength, has chosen to praise his friend Donald, despite rejecting his immigration stance. (Former New York Governor George Pataki has been uncompromisingly outspoken in criticizing Trump’s comments, but his low-visibility campaign means you probably don’t even know that this happened.) Trump has retaliated against all his critics with potshots, demonstrating his skill at playing the “strong” card and never letting  chance pass to grab the upper hand—or at least the louder mic.

For the Republican Party, the problem of what to do about Trump is not a new conundrum. Four years ago, Mitt Romney took great care to ensure that The Donald was inside the tent rather than lobbing missiles from the outside. Romney allowed his campaign to sign off on an elaborately staged endorsement event, held at Trump’s opulent Las Vegas hotel, highlighting Mitt and Ann Romney’s respect for the mogul.

But now that he’s a candidate, Trump is much harder to placate, and many believe, with his immigration position and the general circus environment he carries with him, that he’s causing the party real damage. Democrats have been gleeful about his rise, and the Clinton campaign and her party have stepped up their efforts to yoke the whole GOP field to Trump on immigration, to advance their own standing with Hispanics and put Trump’s rivals on the spot.

Some restive and concerned Republican donors and some commentators (including Charles Krauthammer and Pete Wehner) are calling for the current crop of candidates, and the GOP more generally, to stand up to Trump, even making noise about barring him from the formal debates next month, despite the fact that Trump’s current poll standing would qualify him for entry. Concern has risen high enough that the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, called Trump on Wednesday, urging him to tone down his rhetoric on immigration.

These last few weeks, it has been truly remarkable that in a field of senators, governors, and seasoned presidential contenders, Trump has generated a big portion of the 2016 conversation, dominating social media, spicing up roundtable discussions, and crowding out other political messaging by both Democrats and Republicans.

Which makes Trump a bigger target than ever. Possibly, the calculus of attacking him is changing. The risks are huge for anyone who makes a frontal assault, a full repudiation that goes beyond just challenging Trump on his immigration comments, a truly epic mud war. But a candidate who undertook it might be seen as both a party savior and pillar of strength, definitely prepared to be an Oval Office occupant. Even Bill Clinton might be impressed. Will any of them seize the moment?

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