With the Republican primary campaign finally getting to the hand-to-hand combat stage, the candidates are now beginning to go negative on each other. Donald Trump is playing the “birther” card against Ted Cruz, Chris Christie is playing the “slime” card against Marco Rubio and on it goes. And all the candidates are trying to determine how to deal with the fact that somebody has got to take down the front-runner. Thus far, Trump has been impervious to the puny attacks launched against him. So I ask myself: What would Lee Atwater do about Donald Trump?
In 1988, Lee Atwater famously said of Michael Dukakis, “I’m going to strip the bark off that little bastard.” It’s hard to say what colorful words or phrases Atwater would apply to Trump, but it’s not hard for me to envision what his objective would be. It’s a rule of thumb in campaigns that if your negatives get above about 44 percent, you’re in trouble. So it’s pretty much standard operating procedure to try to drive up the negatives of your opponents via an orchestrated, multi-stage campaign. However, Trump offers a unique challenge in this regard. According to the RealClearPolitics national average, Trump’s negatives are already at 57 percent. For all the talk about his front-runner status, Trump is wildly unpopular.
And as confounding as that is, I don’t think Atwater would be undeterred. He pretty much had a bias for a knife fight. When in doubt, he would go negative. Atwater would obsess about how to get his opponent’s negatives up. Often, that would include revelations of personal misconduct, character flaws and nefarious associations. Granted, Atwater was of a different era, but no doubt even today, he would push the boundaries.
I think Atwater would be surprised that the negative attacks on Trump haven’t even started yet, and he would think they are long overdue. In fact, according to an analysis by the Huffington Post, so far less than 2 percent of the money spent on presidential ads has gone toward ads that portray Trump negatively. Atwater would be dumbfounded and discouraged by that number. He would say that percentage needed to go up drastically — starting immediately. (It’s worth noting that the totals do not include radio ads run by a specifically anti-Trump super PAC, “Make America Awesome.”)
Anyway, Atwater also used to say that if your campaign plan didn’t fit on a 3×5 index card, you probably didn’t have a winning plan. So what might the Atwater plan to attack Trump look like? Well, I can imagine he would have some of the following keywords and phrases listed on his index card:
- Billionaire New Yorker
- Philandering two-time divorcee
- Widows and orphans of Trump victims
- Hates women and has no morals
- Third wife, fur coats, diamonds
- Destroyed small businesses
- Liberal, not conservative
- Phony casino operator, not a businessman
Nothing on this hypothetical 3×5 card is as harsh as it may seem, because it is all readily substantiated. The thing is, opposition researchers would not have to strain or extrapolate to find ways to attack Trump. It’s all right there on his Wikipedia page. Atwater would have a field day. Not to mention, he could count on Trump being a counterpuncher and always being eager to escalate. Of course, Atwater would have anticipated those escalations as part of the fun and would have his re-escalations already plotted out — the louder and more outrageous, the better. I can only imagine the challenge Atwater would feel to out-buffoon Trump.
I can very easily picture an Atwater-inspired ad where he would concoct an image of an even puffier Trump with even funnier hair, laughing in the face of widows and orphans of construction workers who lost their jobs and the small-business owners who have suffered because of Trump bankruptcies. The Trump character sits laughing next to an exotic caricature of his third wife in a fur coat in a gaudy suite of a Trump Hotel in New York. You get the idea. Atwater would get everybody’s attention.
And this would just be the beginning. To keep up the fun, Atwater would be liberal in using Trump’s own words against him — from his insults of women to his cluelessness about the nuclear triad. And yes, Atwater would delight in painting Trump as a racist. The ads would be vicious, and paid, cartoonish characters would start showing up at Trump rallies hoping for an ugly overreaction. The goal would be to rattle Trump and make his campaign a farce. And Atwater would not blink. Once he started, he wouldn’t stop.
At the end of the day, Republicans are Republicans. Consistency, commitment to core beliefs, fidelity and integrity all mean something to most Republicans. A lot of people who support Trump may not think they care about his personal problems, his newly minted issue positions or his inadequacies as a Republican, but Atwater would bet that a lot of them do. Atwater would have been aggressive, witty and belligerent. He would have looked for the line to cross. He probably wouldn’t rest until someone said, “This time, he has gone too far.” To put it gently, Atwater would have been committed to ensuring voters were making an informed decision about whether to support The Donald.