To the great consternation of serious Republicans, not to mention the rest of America, the past few weeks leading up to the first Republican debate of the 2016 race for the presidency have been dominated by Donald Trump—a talented impresario and businessman with a big mouth and no public sector experience.
Not many people think Trump would make a good president or even a mediocre one. But in the bizarro world of today’s nominating process, participation in tonight’s Fox debate is limited to the top 10 candidates based on their showing in very early public opinion polls.
Under these rules Trump comes in first. After him are candidates who have some plausible claim to the Republican nomination either by virtue of their resume or their political leadership. Jeb Bush of Florida, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and John Kasich of Ohio (who just barely squeaked in at 10th place with 2.8 percent of the vote) have all been governors of important states and can all claim heavy-duty political and governmental experience. Others in the line-up, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, represent serious factions within the Republican coalition in addition to having actual experience. Sen. Marco Rubio is an attractive young Hispanic who could signal a generational change in a party that all too often looks like the party of “grumpy old men.”
So why does Trump trump all? Celebrity. And the fact that it is a bit early for those who do not read Politico every day to pay much attention to a race that is months away.
Nonetheless, fascination with the Donald has been sucking the life out of the other candidates. The worse problem, however, is the fact that he is all too often an embarrassment to himself and others.
This aspect of politics can’t be overlooked. Perhaps the most profound thing I ever heard about electoral politics is a quote from the Republican strategist Stuart Stevens, who is quoted in Dan Balz’s book on the 2012 election saying that politics is like high school, “You are who you hang out with.”
Stevens learned that the hard way, as Chief Strategist for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012 he watched Romney get tainted by a long and crowded primary and by comments made by two Republican Senate candidates who seemed to believe that women who were raped couldn’t get pregnant.
And so tonight the big worry of the nine Republicans on stage with Donald Trump is that if he stays in the race too long—whatever outrageous things he says or does will stick to them too.
He has already denigrated the GOP’s biggest war hero and their 2008 standard bearer, Sen. John McCain, who spent years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. One of his top aides was quoted as saying that rape between a man and wife was impossible. Hmm. It’s not. The New York Times delved into his past statements and found “hyperbolic overstatements, and others to be shadings of the truth or even outright misstatements. And in rare instances, he turns boorish and demeaning.”
Republicans are dreading and Democrats are hoping that, come general election time, the accretion of Trump hyperbole will taint whoever makes it through to the end of the marathon that is the primary process.
So what should the candidates do tonight? Trump’s threat to run as an Independent if the Republican Party isn’t nice to him would certainly give the election to Hillary Clinton. If everyone gangs up on Trump, they may push him into just such a decision.
Probably the best thing the other candidates can do is something very much against the grain in a debate where everyone is trying to make a good impression. If they want Trump out of the game they should probably give him lots of time. That’s right, time to talk and talk and talk.
Egos this big eventually hang themselves because they think either they know it all or they don’t have to know it all. Sarah Palin—who Trump admires enough to say he’d love to have her in his cabinet—had a big enough ego that she didn’t do her homework. It caught up with her.
Maybe Trump is off doing his homework today in preparation for the debate. Maybe he is cramming into his head the difference between the mandatory and discretionary parts of the federal budget and the differences between Shiites and Sunnis. Or maybe he is practicing provocative one-liners and hoping for the best.
In a recent poll his favorable to unfavorable numbers were 26 percent to 56 percent. If the other Republican candidates, especially the ones who could actually do the job, want to get Trump out of the race, they will need to let him hang himself now, in the dead of summer when no one will realize that he is part of their party.
Elaine C. Kamarck is a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program and the Director of the Management and Leadership Initiative at the Brookings Institution. This article first appeared on the Brookings site.