How I Would Advise A GOP Candidate to Debate Against Donald Trump

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There he was.

Donald Trump, behind the podium at the Trump Tower (natch) bellowing and steaming that he's going to be the classiest, most gold-and-marble-laden president in the world, and once the White House has been rebranded as the Trump Plaza White House we'll finally have a country of which we can be proud. It was pure Trump; the Brobdingnagian ego, the showman's instincts, the weapons-grade bluster.

And you were thinking what I was thinking. Admit it: 'I feel like I'm taking crazy pills.'

But there he was, an agglomeration of the two most powerful forces in the political world: name ID and narcissism, offering to let you little people have the privilege of finally classing up the joint by voting for him.

You could sense the orifices of the RNC leadership and the GOP presidential campaigns tightening the longer Trump's discursive announcement ran, and the more the media giggled and simpered, happy to have chosen the clown prince of the 2016 cycle. Well, he's here now, and he's filing, so it's time for the GOP to get real about dealing with him. Obviously, the debates are the inflection point, so here's some counsel on using them to contain the damage.

Don't expect to bump him off the stage.

Because Trump has spent three decades in the public eye, first as the scion of a wealthy real-estate magnate, then as a luxury property developer, casino nameplate, and reality television show host, it's time for Republican candidates for President to face a simple fact; Trump will be on that stage. He'll make the cut, based on name ID alone.

Don't expect Fox to save us.

Rupert Murdoch knows good TV, and he sure as hell isn't going to let television like Trump slip through his fingers, regardless of whether the man Spy Magazine once famously called, “a short-fingered vulgarian” turns the GOP debate stage into a clown show. The rest of the media, eager to tar the entirety of the GOP field with whatever lunatic word-vomit Trump spews during the debates, will be cheering him on, feeding his ego, and stoking the furnace of his boundless self-regard.

Play your game, not his. Don't try to match cray for cray.

Trump will come into these debates with a handful of red-meat, base-centric populist chestnuts ("A border moat with lava! Drone strikes on Tijuana! Wily Chinese! Crazy Arabs! Corinthian leather! I could buy and sell God!”) Would you argue policy with a ranting street person who thinks the government has a probe in his brain? No, you would not. It's a moke's game. You will not elevate yourself by doing so with Trump.

Immediately bridge to your own message, and get the hell away from engagement. You can't beat him on celebrity; beat him on substance.

If you're a GOP candidate attacked by Trump, don't get into the weeds trying to address his statements and issues. Don't agree with him. Don't disagree with him. Don't argue with him. Be a bigger, smarter, more substantive candidate. You'd better come prepared, on-point, and ready to show people what you've got. 

Laugh off the haymakers.

Trump is a man who loves the snide ad hominem and he's going to pick a vulnerability in his desired targets (expect Rubio and Bush to get zingers on immigration, Walker on experience, Fiorina on Hewlett Packard, and so on). Here's the secret; he's likely to only have one or two swings in him for each candidate. Roll with them, and get back on your message.

Don't feed the monsters.

This is the greatest gift to the media and the Democrats that they could imagine. They're going to press you on Trump. They're going to try to stir things up. Don't even accept the predicate of their questions when his name is involved. Every interaction with Trump will ramify out into coverage that damages and diminishes every serious candidate on the stage.

His history isn't worth debating.

Don't waste time drilling into Donald Trump oppo; it's just not relevant, and you're wasting time and money you could be devoting to message development against other candidates who will do all the serious campaign work necessary to be competitive.

Don't overestimate him.

Trump is probably ultimately self-limiting. He likely won't invest enough of his own qwan in the race to truly change the game, and it remains to be seen if he will adhere to those election rules like financial disclosure, filing deadlines, expenditure reports, and other irritants the little people face.