The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How do you beat Donald Trump? You punch him. Over and over.

Stuart Stevens talks with Mitt Romney. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Longtime Republican media consultant Stuart Stevens has been one of the most vocal and persistent critics of GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump. On Thursday, Stevens penned a piece in the Daily Beast entitled "We Can Still Beat Donald Trump — And Here's How." I reached out to Stuart to talk to him more about that piece and to get his take on why his skepticism that Trump would win a single primary or caucus was wrong. Our conversation, conducted via email and edited only for grammar, is below.

FIX: You wrote in the Daily Beast Thursday that "Trump is one of the easiest candidates to engage and defeat in modern history.” But candidates — most notably Jeb Bush — have spent lots of time and tens of millions of dollars, and Trump is getting stronger not weaker. So, why do you believe he is so easy to beat?

Stevens: What do we know about Donald Trump? He is extremely emotional and volatile and responds to any perceived slight. He knows almost nothing about policy and, like a lot of lazy people, tries to assert he doesn't need to know. He has little or no support staff that can help compensate for his weaknesses. And most importantly, Trump thinks he is going to win. That's a huge potential asset to an opponent if Trump starts to feel that his "victory" is in jeopardy.

It is a rare that a campaign that can drive the agenda does not take control of a race. Opponents to Trump should have a calculated strategy on how best to get Trump to respond. Once he starts to respond, hit him harder and drive the cycle. Trump is constantly in that Will Ferrell "Anchorman" moment: "Well, that escalated quickly." I'd put a communications team together with one goal: Get Trump to respond and award daily prizes for the most successful response. Trump has a pattern of late-night tweeting responses and that's a great time to taunt him. He has zero discipline and no one to stop him from not doing whatever he wants to do in a given moment. Use that and start to take control of the race.

When in a fight and an opponent doesn't fall down when hit, you don't stop hitting. To win, you hit harder and faster and look for any opening to land more punches. So it is with a campaign. Don't fall into the trap of thinking because a line of attack didn't work at first that it isn't effective. Repetition is key, and often attacks have impacts inside opponent's campaigns — or inside an opponent's head — that have an unseen but cumulative impact.

FIX: In your piece, you say that Mitt Romney is a better candidate than either Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. So, how would Mitt Romney take down Trump if he were in the race? (Keep in  mind that Mitt was resistant to releasing his tax returns, was bashed for his business practices and struggled to talk about his wealth.)

Stevens: Romney had a cool, commanding presence that he used to dismantle opponents' core arguments. He did it with Rick Perry on jobs and on the image of Newt Gingrich as a conservative change agent. Remember that it was assumed by a lot of very smart people — and for good reason — that Romney was doomed in the 2012 primary because of his support of health care in Massachusetts. Romney knew that his first responses to it would be critical and thought through the best approaches to take. He didn't run from or resent the issue. He prepared for it and was comfortable when it came up in the first debate.

Debates are serious and important, and Romney respected their importance. He studied for the test. They key to debates is to understand they are not about great lines — a common misconception — but they are about great arguments. What is the logic of an argument? If you go into a debate trying to land a prepared line, it often takes you out of the flow of the larger argument, and usually it ends up forced and transparent. I've worked a lot with actors in dramatic television. Actors have a hard time landing lines on the first take, and in debates you only get one take. Romney has the intellectual discipline to think through the underlying logic of an argument and the best way to make the argument most powerful.

FIX: "He’s an undisciplined candidate who is intellectually lazy and emotionally vulnerable.” You said that about Donald Trump. Can that possibly be true of someone who has gone as far as Trump has and beaten some of the party’s brightest lights like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie?  You think Trump is crazy. But isn’t he crazy like a fox?

Stevens: Jeb Bush might very well have beaten Donald Trump if he had realized earlier he was running against Donald Trump. He entered the race as a front-runner (unlike Romney in 2012), and had the campaign fought to keep that front-runner status by contrasting with Trump from the get-go, they could have likely controlled the race. Jeb had a huge weapon in his super PAC. Basically the civilized world raised an army to fight the barbarians, and the army decided to fight other elements of the civilized world instead of the barbarians. The result was the barbarians had a good day.

Chris Christie entered the race with a huge bridge hangover and a negative net favorable/unfavorable ratio. He did an amazing thing: He turned that around and did it without spending a ton of money. But that entry point was always a drag on his ability to emerge as a race leader.

And credit should be given to Trump for understanding that he was in a street fight. A presidential race is a vicious, demanding, painful process, and Trump understood that his greatest strength was his willingness to strike first and keep hitting. There was no pretense that he might win on ideas or policy — he has none. Instead [he saw] that his best and only shot was to dominate the race and opponents by being a brawler facing opponents who still believed there were rules and penalties to be paid for not playing by the rules.

Isn't it time to accept that this field of candidates touted as so fantastic were in fact not nearly as strong as billed? Yes, they each had/have strengths, but there was this tendency by many observers who loved various aspects of the candidates to conflate what they liked about a candidate with a belief that they could do well in a presidential race. Winning a nomination is incredibly difficult. How many candidates entered the Republican race? How many will win? One. Does that mean the other candidates were terrible politicians? No. It just means they lost. Many teams try to get to the Super Bowl. Only two do and there is reason to believe that only one wins.

FIX: You didn’t believe that Trump would win a single primary or caucus. He’s now won three in a row by double-digit margins. What did you miss about him? And why are you convinced you aren’t still missing it?

Stevens: Good question. When Trump lost Iowa, I thought he was shaken and assumed other campaigns would move in to block him from winning New Hampshire. Had Rubio or Cruz attacked Trump as they did in last night's debate and done it from the start, I find it doubtful Trump would have won in New Hampshire. What voters largely know about Trump has been delivered by a calculated image machine of Trump Inc. It's up to the campaigns to deliver more information about the candidate. That process should have started sooner. Hopefully it's not too late.

I don't buy that given the current race dynamics that Trump has a ceiling or that any one candidate would benefit from being one-on-one with Trump. He didn't have a ceiling when he was at 10 percent a few months ago. Why should he now? Given my current belief that Trump is in position to win enough delegates to win the nomination if the trajectory remains unchanged, perhaps I'm missing the ability of voters to take a second or third look at Trump as the opposition campaigns focus more heat on his weaknesses.

I did Bill Weld's race against John Silber in 1990 for governor of Massachusetts. A Republican hadn't been elected governor in 25 years. Weld was double digits down for most of the race. Silber was the ultimate angry white male but coupled with a PhD and a superb mind. But mostly he was a candidate of anger running against a wealthy Yankee. We started using a line toward the end of the campaign: "John Silber. He's not just mad at them, he's mad at us." It went to the fear that Silber's anger was unfocused and could be directed at anybody at anytime. The race turned at the very end. I think there is a chance to do the same with Trump. I hope so.

FIX: Finish this sentence: If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, it says ________________ about the Republican Party. Now, explain.

Stevens: Well, it means that the Republican Party will lose the White House and the Senate and probably deservedly so. Trump is a ridiculous candidate who knows nothing about how to fix this very troubled country. He embraces hate to further his personal ambition. He has a despicable character of insecurity that preys on the weak, mocking the disabled. This is a man who has so little idea of his own self-worth that he requires as, he put it, "a young and beautiful piece of ass" on his arm to feel good about himself. If the party that has taken Bill Clinton's morals to task were to embrace Donald Trump, it would surely make Bill Clinton the happiest man on the planet. It would show Republicans as hypocritical opportunists, and he'd get to move back into the White House.