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Teflon Don (or, why it’s near-impossible to attack the GOP front-runner)

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, speaks during a rally coinciding with Pearl Harbor Day at Patriots Point aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., Monday, Dec. 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)

For months now, Republican presidential candidates have been trying to figure out how to disparage Donald Trump effectively. Nothing they say about him seems to work. (I almost said nothing they say about him seems to “stick,” but that’s just the point. It’s as if it doesn’t matter if it “sticks” or not; it doesn’t even matter if it’s true or not. His supporters just don’t care.)

Trump’s opponents have generally adopted the strategy of hurling at him the worst insults they can get away with, while not directly insulting his supporters. Rick Perry started the effort back in July when he called Trump a “cancer on conservatism.” That is not a bad turn of phrase – the alliteration gives it a nice ring, and calling someone a “cancer” is serious stuff – but who even remembers it now?

Jeb Bush has tried repeatedly to lay a glove on Trump. He’s called Trump “unhinged” and a “blowhard” and suggested that the real estate billionaire is somehow colluding with Hillary Clinton. “Maybe Donald negotiated a deal with his buddy @HillaryClinton,” Bush remarked on Twitter. “Continuing this path will put her in the White House.” And again: “Donald Trump is unhinged. His ‘policy’ proposals are not serious.”

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The other GOP candidates (conspicuously excluding Ted Cruz) have similarly searched for just the right biting charge or description. Marco Rubio called Trump, in effect, low-class. “To conduct the presidency,” Rubio said on Fox News, “it has to be done in a dignified way, with a level of class. I don’t think the way he’s behaved over the last few weeks is either dignified or worthy of office he seeks.”

And Chris Christie, speaking on a radio interview, suggested that Trump is a lawless brat. “There are folks in this race who don’t care about what the law says because they’re used to being able to just fire people indiscriminately on television. So, they don’t have to worry about laws say or not say.”

Lindsey Graham – of all these candidates, not coincidentally, the furthest behind in the polls – gets the prize for sheer rhetorical violence, calling Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot.” “You know how you can make America great again?” he asked. “Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.”

That’ll stick for sure! Only it didn’t.

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Part of the reason these sharp-edged insults don’t work is that the one doing the insulting is losing in the polls to the one being insulted. He has an interest other than expressing the objective truth; that interest is to hurt the object of his insult and thus help himself. When you hear the barb, even if it’s a good one, you think: That’s the sort of thing he would say, isn’t it?

The other reason they don’t work is that they’re too direct. The only time direct, full-on insults really work, at least in the political sphere, is when everybody else is afraid to say what needs to be said. Think for instance of special army counsel Joseph Welch’s question to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” That worked brilliantly, but only because it expressed a widely held but theretofore unspoken belief.

Clearly this isn’t the case in a presidential race and certainly isn’t the case in this one. Almost no one has been reluctant to take shots at Trump.

Perhaps the other GOP candidates should learn from the guy they’re desperate to discredit. When he insults a candidate, he often does so with an easy sardonic dismissal, almost as if he wished he didn’t have to say it, so insignificant is the object of his criticism.

Over the summer, for example, Trump did this to Jeb Bush. “Jeb Bush is a very nice man,” he remarked at a news conference. “I’ll be honest – I think he’s a very nice person. I think he’s a very low-energy person, and I don’t think that’s what the country needs.” Trump went on to use this description on several separate occasions.

Bush has never quite recovered. Indeed, it often appears that Bush is still, even now, overcompensating – dropping the f-word in a video, saying “damn” and “hell” frequently, gesticulating awkwardly on the debate stage, and generally acting in a more high-energy fashion.

Notice what Trump did not do. He did not attempt to describe Bush in the most demeaning and politically calculated way. He did not, for example, call Bush an entitled overgrown frat-boy who thinks he’s owed the presidency because his daddy and brother were president. That would make headlines, but it would sound both obvious and ungenerous.

Instead, he prefaced his jab with a patronizing pleasantry, calling Bush a “very nice man,” and then briefly suggested that, while he has nothing against the former governor, Bush isn’t quite up for the job.

Brevity is important here. It suggests nonchalance. Trump hadn’t spent hours with staffers trying to figure out the best way to hit Bush. He simply offered a mildly unflattering opinion of the man and moved on. The effect was lethal. It isn't the only thing that has hurt Bush’s campaign, but it captured what many perceived to be a lackluster effort on the part of Bush and his campaign.

Now, it’s almost certainly impossible for a non-Trump candidate to say anything about Trump that will make a difference in the polling, for reasons already mentioned. But it’s entirely possible for his competitors to refer to Trump in ways that (a) suggest they aren’t obsessed with his success and therefore aren’t prepared to say anything to bring him down and (b) might get under Trump’s skin.

The key, if I’m right, is to find a way to refer to Trump briefly and nonchalantly, beginning with a faux compliment designed to disavow personal animosity or emotional investment, followed by a characterization of him that is both accurate (or sufficiently accurate to make sense) and that will actually bother him when he hears it.

Below are a few examples.

“Look, Donald Trump is an amazing showman and a reasonably talented businessman, in his own way. But he’s got the entitled rich-boy syndrome, and I just don’t think that many Republicans will vote for a guy like that.”

“Donald has brought people into the process who otherwise haven’t been engaged, and I think we all owe him that debt of gratitude. But when it’s time to vote, Republicans aren’t going to nominate an entertainer.”

“Let’s give him credit for bringing media attention to this primary campaign. I think we’ve all benefited from that. And I like Donald. I do. But I just don’t think he’s figured out what his principles are. He probably just needs to think through what he actually believes and why.”

“Donald is an interesting guy, and he doesn’t care about the niceties of campaign orthodoxy – I’ve appreciated that. But he needs two things to go all the way – discipline and the ability to be diplomatic. I don’t think even Donald would claim to have either one of those in spades.”

None of these is likely to do Donald Trump any political damage at this stage – although in my view they’re more likely to stick in the memory and irritate Trump than calling him a villain and a bigot. Each one begins with a compliment that isn’t really a compliment, and ends with a polite summation of Trump’s candidacy that in effect dismisses him as a momentarily interesting phenomenon but not a real force.

Don’t expect anyone to treat Trump this way in Tuesday’s debate. But there’s a useful point to be made anyway, and it’s this: In politics, rhetorical cannonades rarely do any real damage to their targets. They almost always sound self-serving and desperate, and they embitter our discourse for no good reason.

Maybe, after all, one of the GOP candidates could be really bold and try just a hint of subtlety.

(h/t Bill Fischer on the headline)