GOP Elite Charts Four Paths to Destroy Trump

Can the establishment stack the deck against the billionaire?


Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Every major Republican presidential campaign, and every allied super-PAC, confronts the same question at their morning strategy meetings: What do you do with a problem like Donald Trump?

For weeks the businessman/impresario has been running first in every national poll of Republicans. He dominates the race and consumes vast amounts of media oxygen, forcing other candidates to alter their tactics and strategies and leaving Republican strategists increasingly unsure of how to manage the threat.  

The Republican establishment -- major office holders, donors, business supporters and advisers -- now realize that Trump won't disappear anytime soon, and that he is likely hurting the party's prospects in 2016. With the establishment increasingly eager for Trump's demise, four potential routes to achieving it have emerged:

PATIENCE. This is the path advised by those convinced that Trump will eventually do himself in. They believe that the accumulation of controversial and offensive comments, along with Trump's lack of a coherent agenda, will gradually sink in with voters. In this view, Trump is like a boxer who absorbs body blows in the early rounds, seemingly to no effect, only to reveal later how devastating the toll has been. 

However, Trump has so far proved stubbornly resistant to this script. He has suggested that Republican Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war, wasn't a war hero. He repeatedly attacked Fox News host Megyn Kelly after she asked him tough questions at the first Republican debate. For any other candidate, that probably would've been curtains. So far, Trump's populist, blatantly racist appeal to an angry, scared constituency appears immune to backlash.

STACK THE DECK. Republicans in South Carolina are requiring that, for candidates to qualify for the state's important early primary, they must pledge to support the eventual party nominee and not run as an independent. Other state Republican parties are considering a similar move. This is aimed squarely at making the primaries difficult for Trump.

It's also a likely loser. First, if challenged in court, the requirement may not stand. Further, the increasingly confident Trump is now signaling that he might agree to such terms. Yet he could always change his mind after the fact. As the fabled governor of Louisiana, Earl Long, replied when asked what he would tell people after abandoning a campaign pledge: "Tell them I lied."

MASSIVE ASSAULT. Only one campaign has the resources to bury Trump under a barrage of negative advertising: The super-PAC Right to Rise, allied with Jeb Bush, which reported having raised more than $100 million by the end of June. Veteran strategist Mike Murphy, a Bush confidant who runs the super-PAC, has said he won't spend resources on Trump. A better option, which reportedly has been discussed among party elites, is for a Republican billionaire to fund an independent expenditure campaign against Trump.

Trouble is, a sustained attack on Trump might cost a small fortune. Independent groups are charged much higher rates for television ads than candidate campaigns, which receive the lowest going rate. Moreover, an independent attack on Trump could be seen for exactly what it would be: an effort by the party establishment to destroy the outsider. It risks intensifying Trump's support.

CONTAIN THE THREAT. Conservative journalist Ramesh Ponnuru, an insightful political analyst, wrote in Bloomberg View last week that Trump is basically a high-octane nuisance. "Trump," Ponnuru wrote, "is an existential threat to the weakest candidates -- but not to anybody else."

As long as establishment Republicans and thoughtful analysts such as Ponnuru refuse to treat Trump seriously, he presumably can be relegated to the path that fringe candidates Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain trod in 2012. Both led the polls for a time in the 2011 run-up to the Iowa caucuses.

Trump is still unlikely to win the nomination. Yet, unlike Bachmann or Cain, his impact on other candidates has been powerful. Trump raised immigration-bashing to a piercing cry, and now his call echoes. In recent days, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker mentioned the possibility of building a wall along the 5,000-mile Canadian border. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie suggested tracking immigrants like FedEx packages. And Bush was flummoxed in trying to explain an awkward reference to "anchor babies."

If Trump's disruptions continue, it's unclear which, if any, of the above paths will prevail. Trump is a far more potent phenomenon than most establishment Republicans or pundits deemed possible just a few months ago. And he remains an unpredictable force. Republican ad maker Fred Davis, a strategist for a super-PAC supporting Ohio Governor John Kasich, said, "At this stage we really don't know what the hell is going to happen with Trump."

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