The Donald Trump debate controversy is both a brilliant move on Trump’s part and an opportunity for the other Republican candidates.
Yes, I’ll be watching the debate tonight even without the presence of Trump because the most interesting part of this is what the other candidates will do. Will they use the stage to bash Trump? Will they bash each other? Will they continue to attack Hillary Clinton? Or will one of them emerge as an alternative to the Trump bluster?
Each of those tactics has a logic but also pose some danger. If they use the debate to take down Trump, it might seem petty because he won’t be there. It could, in effect, make Trump the de facto winner of the debate without him even being there.
A deft politician (and one hasn’t emerged among the Republican candidates yet) could straddle the line between seeming important while using the Trump debate controversy to damage Trump’s brand.
How candidates should handle the Trump debate issue.
If not that, then what are the candidates to do? They could go at one another (primarily Ted Cruz, I’m guessing, as he’s second in the polls) but that also helps Trump. It keeps him out of the fray and his standing untouched.
Taking on Clinton will no doubt happen, but that won’t distinguish any one of them from the others. It’s the safe strategy but it won’t change the polls (or the upcoming Iowa vote) much.
Instead, what’s called for is something much harder to do. There have been two problems facing the other candidates that need to be addressed tonight with the Trump debate issue hanging in the air. For one, Trump (and, to some extent, Cruz) has tapped into a belief that government is broken and that a certain target audience has not been heard or involved. That has left the so-called insiders (Rubio, Christie, Bush) fighting over the same votes, when one of them needs to drop out to consolidate that wing of the party.
In absence of that, though, none of them has found a belief they can align their own brands with that resonates with voters. No wonder Trump leads the polls. The rest of them just sound alike and trite. What does Marco Rubio stand for? Jeb? Christie? What belief system do they represent?
Answering those questions is the hard work of politics and brand building. The Trump debate situation sounds petty on the surface but Trump understands that he doesn’t do well in debates, he has nothing to gain by being involved and that the belief system he represents is about fighting the status quo.
As silly as it sounds, Trump staying out of the debate demonstrates a sort of strength to his voter base.
The only way the Trump debate controversy backfires on him is if one or two of the other candidates take the opportunity to present something new: A brand that represents another belief system strongly felt among Republican voters.
I’m not keeping my hopes up. And I’m sure Trump isn’t either.