WASHINGTON – It has dawned on the Republican presidential field that Donald Trump’s inevitable self-destruction might be, gulp, evitable. Waiting for the unlikely front-runner to beat himself is starting to look like a plan, as Trump might put it, for total losers.
So the other candidates are trying various strategies to seize the initiative. Thus far, nothing seems to work.
The worst idea is to try to out-Trump Trump. This is the approach Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker – who may be suffering the most from the Trump surge – is trying to take.
Back in March, Walker briefly led all comers in the national polls. As recently as a few weeks ago, he was still ahead in Iowa – the state where he has basically placed all his chips. If Walker can’t win in the Midwest, he probably can’t win anywhere. Until recently, the only question was how big his Iowa margin would be.
But Walker’s numbers in his must-win state have plunged as sharply as Trump’s have risen. In the Real Clear Politics polling average, Walker is now in fourth place. In a recent CNN poll, Walker’s support in Iowa was down to just 9 percent while Trump led the field with 22 percent. This wasn’t all Trump’s fault: Walker’s performance in the first debate was forgettable and his stump appearances had become repetitive, almost robotic. Voters knew, already, that organized labor had tried to take him down but he was still standing.
In desperation, Walker has begun trying to sound more like Trump. He started claiming that he, too, has long advocated building a wall along the border with Mexico – which isn’t quite true. He suddenly became sharply critical of the GOP establishment in Washington – after spending the past year courting that same establishment. And he promised his supporters that he will be more unscripted, which is just laughable. If you have to lay out a step-by-step plan for being spontaneous, you’re doing it wrong.
Mike Huckabee, who also hopes – and needs – to do well in Iowa, tried to one-up Trump in the incendiary rhetoric department, thundering that the Iran nuclear deal would march Israelis “to the door of the oven.” He managed to get a couple of days’ worth of media attention but no boost in the polls. Maybe if he had a helicopter?
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and businesswoman Carly Fiorina have had their boats lifted by Trump’s anti-politician tide. Neither would seem to have a realistic shot at the nomination, at this point – but then again, who would have thought Trump had a realistic chance of leading by double digits? Carson and Fiorina can mind their own business, hope to continue scoring points at the debates and wait to see what happens.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, by contrast, can’t wait. At this point, his campaign might as well be in the witness protection program. Paul was supposed to be the candidate who stood out as refreshingly different from all the others. But in this motley field, he looks as bold and unconventional as a gray flannel suit.
His way of dealing with the Trump phenomenon is to attack. Paul has called Trump a “fake conservative” and declared that “the emperor has no clothes.” He told NBC’s Chris Jansing that Trump is “saying things that are completely vapid, things that are completely vulgar and completely non-sequitur.”
And your point would be what, senator? The outrageous, unfiltered and sometimes offensive words that come out of Trump’s mouth are a big part of why he’s winning, it seems to me. In the interview with Jansing, Paul predicted that voters would “absolutely not” nominate someone like Trump. But he also compared Trump to Italy’s celebrity billionaire Silvio Berlusconi – who became prime minister.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has largely stayed out of Trump’s way and tried to avoid making eye contact.
Jeb Bush, who is supposed to be the grown-up in this race, seems not to know what to do. He has tried ignoring Trump. He has tried being nice to him, in a patronizing way. This week he went on the attack, charging that Trump is not an authentic Republican or even an authentic conservative. The problem is that many GOP voters seem to prefer an authentic Trump.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has taken a different approach: sidling up to Trump and being nice. If you can’t beat him, join him – for now – and wait for the chance to make a move. It might not work. But nobody seems to have a better idea.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.