The central drama that will play out in tonight’s GOP presidential debate is how the pack of mainstream candidates, languishing in the polls, will confront Donald Trump. Trump has benefited to this point by a widely held – but so far incorrect assumption – that if you stay out of his way long enough he will eventually crash and burn. Yet, Trump has (surprisingly) proven to be more resilient as a candidate than many of us (myself included) would have ever believed, surviving a series of gaffes and missteps that would have felled a lesser candidate.

For the pack of mainstream candidates stuck in the middle (or perhaps more accurately at the bottom), the time has come to stop waiting for the inevitable collapse and push Trump into the wall. The trouble is, if Trump does crash, he’ll take several other cars with him, including the driver who forced him out the race.

Here is where a large field of candidates makes a difference: Were Trump matched with any of the other candidates in a two-person race, the strategic calculation to attack would be obvious. In a multi-candidate race, attacks are riskier as they often impose a toll on both the attacker and the attacked. The candidate that emerges from this overcrowded field may well be the candidate who stays out of (and above) the fray. Think Ben Carson or John Kasich.

But these “stuck in the middle” candidates have other strategic imperatives they must also consider. In order to continue to garner campaign contributions and build the organizations necessary to run a successful presidential campaign, they need to show that their campaigns are gaining (and not losing) momentum. The trouble confronting Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, and others is that they appear to be backsliding from contenders and front-runners to also-rans. To combat this, they need a strong and assertive performance to show that their campaigns are not “low energy.”

The polls, in this sense, do matter; though it is not simply a matter of who is winning and who is losing. In mid-September, we are still in the beginning chapters of the 2016 presidential campaign. The question of who is gaining ground and who is losing ground – and who is emerging as a viable and electable candidate  –  is far more important. The early front-runners in this election cycle – Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul – need to reestablish their candidacies by making a strong claim as to why they should be the nominee.

The most direct path is to stand up the classroom bully.The risk, of course, is that Trump has proven he will hit back.


Who Will Stand Up to Trump in the Second GOP Debate?


Scott Walker v. Martin O’Malley in 2016? (No, Not Really, But Maybe?)

Instead of talking Jeb Bush v. Hillary Clinton in 2016, maybe we should discuss Scott Walker v. Martin O’Malley. I am not entirely serious about this but here is what we know:

  1.  The Republican Party will have a crowded field but will essentially be competing for two sets of voters. Conservatives appealing to the ideological base versus establishment candidates appealing to moderates and “practical” conservatives. Scott Walker, elected in blue-state Wisconsin and the survivor of union-led recall election, has the potential to appeal to both sets of voters.  In 2000, Republican money and organization very smartly united behind George W. Bush early in the campaign process minimizing competition. The only wrinkle was John McCain who apparently didn’t get the memo and made the nomination look potentially interesting until getting decimated by negative campaigning in South Carolina. The Republican Party heading into 2016 is considerably more chaotic making such a strategy untenable, the process far less predictable, and Jeb Bush far less inevitable.  Bush unquestionably brings a lot to the table in terms of money and organization, but he is no sure thing when it comes to the nomination.
  2. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton looks unbeatable but it is worth remembering that she also looked unbeatable in 2008. The ideological base of the Democratic Party never really embraced the Clintons (Bill or Hillary) and the politics of compromise and triangulation, and has ongoing doubts about a Hillary Clinton presidency. Those doubts are starting to emerge and will be expressed more loudly and clearly as we move closer to the nomination.  The email scandal and the reemergence of Monica Lewinsky are just the beginning. While it is tempting to believe these stories will be pushed solely by Republicans, there are plenty of Democrats willing to play along.  Assuming no other serious candidates emerge, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has the potential to capture this dissatisfaction and mount a serious challenge. How serious may well depend on the deftness of the Hillary Clinton campaign and her ability to reassure doubters and unite an uncertain base.

Neither of these outcomes is particularly likely, but the field for 2016 is hardly set, and voters may well be in a mindset of rejecting “politics as usual” which means rejecting the obvious and safe political choices.


Hillary Clinton’s Email

News stories don’t just happen, they are created. They endure when they fit an existing narrative or when they serve some useful purpose.

This isn’t an apology for Hillary Clinton’s use of personal email for State Department business, but the story provides interesting insight into her position in the 2016 presidential race and why she is vulnerable despite considerable advantages. First, she is a clear favorite to win the Democratic nomination but for all the attention given to the Tea Party on the right, the left has its fair share of Tea Party envy. These are liberals who have spent too much time watching Aaron Sorkin dramas and waiting for Josiah Bartlett to seize the Democratic nomination and articulate a principled and uncompromising version of Democratic politics. These Democrats have no love for the Clintons who they see as the embodiment of compromise and triangulation, and a corrupt politics of cynicism and manipulation.

Republicans, for their part, have a slew of candidates, but none – at least without the last name of Bush – appears capable right now of competing with Clinton.  Wounding Clinton now can only help the Republican Party by renewing questions about Clinton morality. The familiar storyline from the 1990s of the Clintons disregard for rules reemerges.

With skeptics on the left and enemies on the right, the scandal will most likely linger (unless some new story can push it off the agenda) because it fits into a comfortable narrative. For Hillary Clinton, there is no easy escape. The best way to end the story – releasing the emails – will raise a whole new set of new questions and pushes her campaign (even further) off-message.

The email raises plenty of questions about Hillary Clinton’s fitness to be president, but it also raises questions about who benefits from her downfall. Republicans are the obvious answer, but they aren’t the only beneficiaries at least when it comes to controlling the Democratic nomination and the future of the party.