In my previous posts, I’ve shared some of my thoughts about the ongoing Republican presidential primary campaign. I’d like to follow up on a few of these themes now, in light of some more recent developments and information.
I’ve said before that I was very concerned about the state of the race and the standings of the various candidates in the polls, and that the fact that Donald Trump was leading was particularly disturbing. A few days ago, I read a column by Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review and Bloomberg View, in which he listed several reasons he believes those of us opposed to Donald Trump don’t actually need to worry. It’s an interesting read, and I wish I shared Mr. Ponnuru’s confidence that Donald Trump won’t get the nomination or hurt the Republican side overall in the election, but I’m afraid that I don’t really find myself reassured even after thinking about the points he makes. While it may be true (or at least have been true in the past) that major political parties would not choose to nominate someone completely new to public office, I’m not sure that “the party” is going to have much say in the matter if people continue to support Trump. Plus, it seems that the only other people having any success with their campaigns right now are the other two political newcomers (Carson and Fiorina,) so it seems that the public’s mood will have to completely change to allow an experienced officeholder to win. I don’t know if there are details of the selection process that might make it possible for party officials to exert some influence, but I can’t see things ending well if they were to try to circumvent the choices of the voters, especially in the climate we have now. As for the possibility that many who currently support Trump in the polls may make a more reasoned choice later, I suppose there’s some chance that could happen. The way things have been going, though, I don’t know what it might take to make them change their minds, and who knows how many choices might still remain or in what political condition they might be by the time these voters would decide to reconsider. I can only hope that Mr. Ponnuru is right and that Donald Trump’s domination of the race will be temporary, but I am quite afraid that might not be the case.
In my last post, I talked about my wish for the primary to remain as positive and free from intra-party attacks as possible and my fear that it might instead get rather ugly. Even at this early stage, some of the criticism and negative advertising have already begun, which is unfortunate. I do acknowledge that candidates can’t always avoid being critical of their opponents. Sometimes a rival might take a position or make a comment that is so outrageous that others need to address it, and if one of the candidates “goes negative” and starts attacking one or more others, the target(s) will probably need to respond. This year, one candidate in particular, the aforementioned frontrunner Donald Trump, seems to have already made a habit of mocking and insulting others in the field, behavior I would have expected to be more common from someone trailing in the race and trying to make up ground. Some of the remarks have been more personal than policy-related, and a large number of them have been directed at Jeb Bush. Considering the nature and frequency of these taunts and attacks, I think that other candidates are justified in leveling their own criticisms at Trump in return. I do still think it would be best if, while doing so, they can try to stick to as high a road as possible by being truthful and aiming their criticisms at the actions, comments, and policy views of their antagonist rather than making personal insults, although I’m sure this might be very tempting at times. (For the record, I’d say that Jeb Bush’s recently released ad, composed of clips and quotes of Donald Trump saying things that should trouble Republicans and conservatives, is fair enough.)
I do worry, though, that Donald Trump’s targets may be in a no-win situation. If they try to just ignore his criticisms and stick to their own messages, they risk being seen as weak or lacking the backbone to stand up for themselves. Unfortunately, whatever charges are made may “stick” in the minds of the public either way, but if the candidates at whom these salvos are aimed don’t even try to explain and give their own sides of the story, it is even more likely that the negative words of their opponents will play a large part in shaping people’s views and images of them. Yet, if someone does respond to negative campaigning, not only is attention focused on something other than the story and agenda he (or she) wishes to share, but he may be branded as another attacker, even though only defending himself. Plus, in the case of Donald Trump, at least, it seems at this point that it probably won’t really matter what is said about or in response to him -- nothing seems able to overcome all of his media attention or to sway those who support him. All in all, though, I think that the other candidates do need to at least make an effort to keep from being defined by an opponent and to set the record straight.
On a side note, I’d still suggest that candidates should think twice before “going after” rivals other than Trump for a couple of reasons. Obviously, they need to keep in mind that this will invite a response they may not want, but I also wonder what benefit they would really seek by doing this. Is taking on someone who has 6% support in the polls compared to your 4% actually likely to help you all that much? I would think that there are probably more effective uses of the candidates’ time and advertising dollars.
To recap, should looking at the current state of the Republican primary race leave me feeling calm and optimistic? With the inexplicable front-runner actually seeming more popular than before and negativity already rearing its head in the campaign, I think that apprehension is a more appropriate reaction. So, for now, I’ll keep watching -- and worrying.