At tonight’s debate in Houston, Marco Rubio’s team has already decided that he should stay on target, keep to the script of ignoring Donald Trump, and focus his argument against Ted Cruz. “Rubio’s team has decided his best bet is to focus fire on Cruz. They think the Texas senator’s voters are less committed and could swing Rubio’s way should Cruz fade. The only way to dislodge Trump … is to turn it into a two-man race – meaning that they first need to get Cruz out of the way.”
Ross Douthat is among the many frustrated by Marco Rubio’s unwillingness to attack Donald Trump. “If this actually works, the Rubio brain trust is going to dine out on their own sang-froid for years. But the Kutuzov plan would make a lot more sense if there were a lot more time for it to work — if after Super Tuesday the Republican primary campaign were fought at a leisurely pace of, say, one primary a week, with lots of time to go back and forth with Trump once Cruz is finished, lots of time to figure out which Cruz voters lean Trumpward and how to woo them, lots of time to hone a pitch against Trump and bounce back from any blows he lands, lots of time to organize skittish donors into a campaign against his soft underbelly.
“The real schedule, though, is far more unforgiving. If Rubio can’t actually pull ahead of Trump in swing-state polls by March 15, when Ohio and Florida hold their winner-take-all votes, then he won’t be Kutuzov after Napoleon took Moscow; he’ll be the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk without a fleet to ferry him to safety.”
Plenty of people believe Rubio is attacking the wrong opponent. And yet he’s sticking with it. Rubio’s fervent commitment to avoiding taking on Trump and focusing on Cruz all makes talk of a potential unity ticket for the Senators sound pretty stretched. Jonah Goldberg explains why it won’t work here:“Rubio’s strategy isn’t crazy, just implausible. If he’s hoping the “establishment” can rescue him, or that attacking everyone but Trump is the route to victory, he should take a moment to review how the primaries became such a raging garbage fire in the first place.” Additionally, the second choice information we have actually looks like Trump benefits as much as Rubio from Cruz going down.
Here’s the thing: you don’t beat frontrunners by ignoring them. You beat them by beating them. That means mercilessly pummeling them on every front – in ads, in the mail, and in debates. The strategy of beating Trump by ignoring him and pretending he will go away has been a complete disaster for the party. The only time any damage has been done to Trump in a debate was by Jeb Bush on his way out the door, finally getting under Trump’s skin and prompting an outburst that knocked his South Carolina performance down a few points.
I also think it’s silly to make the case against Trump on non-Trumpian terms. Going after Trump on ideological inconsistency doesn’t speak the language of his supporters and is ignored by them. Battling Trump on stage should be done in the language of Trump: vicious, sustained personal attacks that are designed to get under his skin and provoke an outburst that makes him look weak. His appeal is inherently stylistic, so that style should eb used against him. Mock him. Mock his orange skin, his business failures, his need to buy friends because no one likes spending time with him. What kind of loser pays people to go to his wedding?
This may seem unpresidential in the scheme of things. But it is not the case in this cycle. Going after Trump on Trump’s term will require behaving in a way that any traditionally minded person will find appalling – but it would make for must see TV. Take the flamethrower to him. Interrupt him constantly. Belittle him. Insult him. Play on his very obvious insecurities. Give him a nickname – just start calling him “Marla”, without any explanation, and pretend you don’t even realize it. Don’t let him talk. Bash him for hiring foreign workers. Bash him for loving Planned Parenthood. Bash him for his obsession with Megyn Kelly. Make note of his stubby fingers and small hands – we all know what that means. When he responds with ever-increasing insults and shushing, tell him to go get his shinebox.
Of all people, Mitt Romney is your guide at this moment, hinting that the “bombshell” in Donald Trump’s undisclosed tax returns is that Trump is not as rich as he claims to be. Do you want to know why we know this is Trump’s soft underbelly? A few years ago, insult comic Anthony Jeselnik told Joan Rivers that when he roasted Donald Trump on Comedy Central, he was told the only thing off-limits were jokes suggesting that Trump had less money than he claims. Not his family, not his kids or his parents – his net worth was what he chose to be off-limits.
Now, going after Trump in Trumpian terms is a risk. But he’s on track to win anyway. Waiting for him to explode or for lanes to clear is a losing bet – the time is now to scorch the earth. This is Khaleesi walking into the fire. She knew she was done either way – so the choice was to walk into the fire. She would die, or emerge more powerful than ever.
Losers whine about lane clearing. Winners beat Trump.