GOP establishment's dumbest idea: Boycott the debates until Trump is kicked out!

Banning Donald Trump from the debates would be the absolute best thing the GOP could do... for Trump

By Jim Newell

Published July 23, 2015 5:20PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Brian Snyder)
(Reuters/Brian Snyder)

The rise of Donald Trump has brought all sorts of stupid to the world of politics. Most of it emanates from the mouth of Trump himself, but a lot of it also comes from the scaredy-cat brains of the consultants, establishment figures, and wealthy donors who are concerned about what Trump is doing to the GOP "brand."

The concern is understandable. He is doing not-good things for the GOP "brand." He is saying awful things about Mexican-Americans and the party's other candidates and has zero coherent policy positions, yet nearly a quarter of Republican voters have taken a shine to the carnival.

That sucks (for them!), and who can blame them for simply wishing it could go away or be swept under the rug? But as we wrote this morning, and as candidates like Rick Perry smartly understand, ignoring him will not excise the problem.

The Republican officials who are concerned about Trump, which is to say all of them, are terrified of what Trump will do to the party's image and its viable presidential candidates during "90 Minutes in Cleveland," the cable-news blockbuster scheduled for August 6. Murmurs have been whizzing around for the past couple weeks about the possibility of simply barring Trump from the debate. Now the New York Times reports that "donors and operatives mused about how to prevent [Trump] from hijacking the debate" at a Republican Governors Association meeting this week:

One idea that came up was to urge three leading candidates — Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor; Mr. Walker; and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida — to band together and state that they would not participate in any debate in which Mr. Trump was present, using his refusal to rule out a third-party bid as a pretext for taking such a hard line. The thinking, according to a Republican involved in the conversations, was that the lesser-funded prospects who have been eclipsed by Mr. Trump would follow suit, and the TV networks airing the debates would be forced to bar Mr. Trump in order to have a full complement of candidates.

And thus was hatched the dumbest idea ever. How dumb was it? It was so dumb that even the dumb campaigns of Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio weren't dumb enough to go along with it.

The plan was dumb because!

• The other candidates would not have walked out of the debate alongside Bush, Walker and Rubio. The debates are an absolute lifeline for all of the other candidates. Since candidates like Cruz or Carson aren't even attacking Trump for fear of turning off the voters that they'll eventually need, the solidarity needed to make this walk-off successful wouldn't be achievable. And none of the lower-tier candidates want to be seen following the lead of Bush, Walker, or Rubio.

• Refusing to debate Trump, however much a of charlatan he is, would have looked like a heavy-handed establishment move to squelch him, because that's exactly what it would have been.

• Fox News, the host of the first debate, loves the dickens out of Donald Trump. He's ratings gold! We learned yesterday that his presence is such good business for Fox News that the network's president, Roger Ailes, is defying direct orders from his boss, Rupert Murdoch, to stop giving Trump so much airtime. Ailes is personally stage-managing a phony debate on his network about Donald Trump's merits as a politician, for fun. ("One source explained that Ailes has instructed "The Five" co-host Eric Bolling to defend Trump on air," New York's Gabriel Sherman reported yesterday. "A review of Bolling’s comments shows that over the past week, he’s gone to bat for Trump numerous times.") Fox will never remove Trump from the debate. Even if the rest of the field managed to achieve solidarity and Trump was the only figure left in the debate, Fox wouldn't cancel it, because 90 minutes of Trump debating himself would be pretty fantastic television.

• The amount of airtime that Donald Trump receives already would pale in comparison to the airtime he'd get if the rest of the field banded together to exclude him from the debate. He would be on television approximately 25 hours a day milking the martyrdom, talking about how the other candidates are too scared to interact with such a massively, massively successful businessman who makes so, so much money, so much money, and wants to Make America Great Again! Trump is not some unknown figure whom the higher-ups can bar from public exposure.

• Everyone expects Trump's support to crater eventually. The people who support him now are mostly old people who recognize him as the funny business fellow from the television box. The support is soft. But if the GOP establishment martyrs Trump? That would be an excellent way to harden his support and urge him to take that support with him to the third-party candidacy that would ice Hillary Clinton's victory.

They're overthinking this. Just get on the stage with Donald Trump and expose him for the joke he is. Ask him literally any policy question and he will blow up. Corner him, and make a fool of him. A debate with Donald Trump should be an opportunity -- a lay-up, really -- to put an end to this. Greet it with the same good cheer and fighting spirit that Donald Trump, America's (the world's?) most successful human, ever, greets every golden sunrise in Manhattan.

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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