Unless Donald Trump changes his mind, he won’t be at the GOP presidential debate Thursday night. That creates opportunities, but also pitfalls, for the rest of the field. So what do the candidates need to do?
First, the first candidate to speak Trump’s name loses. Seriously, no candidate should reply to a Donald Trump says X, so what do you say? question. The answer is: “I don’t debate people who don’t bother to show up.” The candidate can then explain his own position without regard to Trump. If the candidates spend their time talking about Trump, he will have won the night.
Second, do not talk about the past except with regard to Hillary Clinton. It is tempting to debate others’ votes or gaffes. Here’s the thing: Voters do not care. Sorry, but experience is not persuasive in this election cycle. Because voters think all pols are shifty, pointing out a discrete change in position — unless it is part of a major character theme (more about that later) — is going to make voters’ eyes glaze over.
Third, one task for each candidate is to explain why he is the one to beat Hillary Clinton. “I will beat her because no one is as capable as I in shredding her awful foreign policy.” “I can dismember Clinton in a debate because I am not a rich, privileged pol who thinks the rules apply to little people.” Those are the sorts of things, followed by some details, that may be persuasive.
Fourth, the other task for each candidate is to explain what he is going to do as president. “Here is what I want” (e.g., growth, higher wages, national security), “and here is how I am going to deliver it.” So many candidates talk about what they have done in the past or what President Obama has done wrong that they avoid setting out their own vision. It is a mistake, and candidates who do not present their vision can and should be called out. If you cannot explain in some detail what you will do to reduce the debt or save Social Security or defeat the Islamic State, you should not be running.
Fifth, character matters. If a candidate is looking voters in the face and lying, his opponents should say so. If a candidate is so obnoxious that only blood relatives and paid staff like him, that is fair game. And yes, if the candidate is a constant shape-shifter, saying whatever it takes to get elected, his opponents should pounce. The accuser should not get lost in the weeds; instead, make the target defend his tortuous thinking as he attempts to square the circle. (This worked for Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) against Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) in the last debate.) No one is a saint, but public character matters, as we’ve learned from Bill (and Hillary) Clinton. Too many pundits and policy wonks ignore this altogether, choosing simply to pick a candidate based on a list of policy positions. That’s not how voters think, and it promotes ethically defective candidates who will blow themselves up sooner or later.
Sixth, when critiquing opponents, resist the urge to say, “He’s not a conservative.” (Neither is Trump, and look where he is in the polls.) That’s a meaningless argument that puts one in the position of quibbling about definitions. The problem with Sen. Rand Paul’s (Ky.) foreign policy is that it is dangerous and unworkable, not that it is “not conservative.” And for goodness’ sake, stop throwing around “establishment,” which has become an intellectually lazy term. If you cannot make a case for your own views without saying the “establishment” is against you, forget it. And likewise, saying the “establishment” is for an opponent is not an argument to vote against that person. (The “establishment,” like a broken clock, can be right twice a day.) “Everyone is against me” is not a statement conveying strength and confidence.
Seventh, never answer a process question (e.g., “How are you going to win Iowa if you cannot lock up older, white females?”). The answer cannot possibly persuade voters. Instead, playing pundit lowers a pol’s stature. If asked “What is your path to the nomination?” the answer is: “To convince Republicans I am the one best able to defeat Hillary Clinton, repair the damage of the Obama years and chart a better future.” Then fill in the details. Every process question should engender a substantive answer about who the candidate is, why he should be entrusted with the nomination and what he will do for voters.
Eighth, don’t complain about lack of time to speak, about the media, about Trump (especially about Trump!) or about one’s inability to be heard. That’s a time-waster and — pardon the Trump-ism — loser talk.
Ninth, the answer to whether one will endorse whoever the nominee is should be: No. Really, if the nominee is a threat to the future of the party, the conservative movement and the country, the only responsible answer is: “I sure hope I can do so.” (This was a huge missed opportunity for National Review’s anti-Trump onslaught. The editors could have planted their flag on halting Trump. In refusing to do so, they lost the moral high ground.)
Tenth, end on a positive note. Ultimately, voters want what is best for the country. They want to be proud of their vote. If you make yourself simply the least horrible of all the choices, people will stay home, especially in a caucus state.