Last night’s debate made one thing crystal clear — Donald Trump’s principal competitors still don’t know quite what to do about him. For those who are accustomed to watching GOP presidential debates — especially those who remember the free-for-alls in 2008 and 2012 — last night’s event was odd indeed. Each of the remaining double-digit challengers to Trump’s enormous polling lead — Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Marco Rubio — went out of their way to avoid directly attacking Trump, with Cruz and Rubio instead choosing to strike each other.
While Carson is running the same race he’s always run — seemingly utterly unconcerned about his opponents — to the uninformed observer, it was almost as if Rubio and Cruz were auditioning for vice president — trying only to achieve a clear second place finish. Yet both hope to win, and both candidates believe they will win. So why not confront the front-runner? Why leave Trump to be attacked by single-digit polling competitors who are transparently desperate to elbow their way into the conversation?
The best explanation is that Rubio and Cruz are holding their fire out of a combination of faith and fear: faith in political gravity and fear of devastating Trump attacks. First, the faith. Speak to virtually any political pro, and there is a deep-seated sense of disbelief about the Trump phenomenon. His rise just can’t be real. It has to be roughly comparable to the flavor-of-the-month candidates last election cycle. After all, the Republican base lurched from supporting Michele Bachmann to Herman Cain to an increasingly flaky Newt Gingrich before settling for a contest between a respectable former-senator, Rick Santorum, and a respectable former-governor, Mitt Romney. Surely something like that will happen again, right?
This sense of disbelief is part of the reason why so many seemingly hopeless candidates remain in the race. Trump will fall, they think, and when he does that means somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the electorate is up for grabs.
The Cruz faith-based case for the nomination is easy to grasp. He wins Iowa because caucus-goers will choose a stalwart Christian conservative over a brash, irreligious New Yorker. With Trump’s aura of invincibility punctured, he’ll fade without Cruz having to lay a glove on him. As the last viable anti-establishment candidate, he weathers the New Hampshire primary, wins South Carolina, dominates the SEC states, and is off to the races.
Rubio’s faith-based case is similar: watch Cruz’s homeschooled legions batter Trump on Iowa’s frozen political battlefield, take advantage of a New Hampshire electorate that will be suspicious of Cruz and looking for a new champion, and then take on the Texas senator mano a mano in South Carolina and beyond.
#share#And that brings us to the fear. The faith strategy requires that Cruz and Rubio remain viable, that they’re the last men standing if Trump falls. Yet if Trump attacks — and either his punches land or their counter-punch is ineffective — then they’ll find themselves inescapably diminished. The frustrated anti-Trump GOP voter will look for a new champion (Chris Christie, perhaps?) while the conservative looking for strength and boldness will see instead weakness and failure. So why risk going hammer and tongs after Trump if he’s going to fall anyway?
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But what if he doesn’t fall? What if a six-month polling lead actually means that his support is durable — not merely because of personal loyalty to Trump and his positions but because he’s the only one seen as strong enough to confront our enemies abroad and a politically correct establishment here at home? The man with perhaps the least foreign-policy expertise in the field (aside from Ben Carson) has only solidified his lead in response to the deadly terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. When Trump has built an entire brand on strength — and when he’s competing to replace a man who’s centered his foreign policy on weakness — I’m skeptical that an inherently passive strategy will win the day.
I don’t want the last man standing. I want the guy who took down the king.
A passive strategy counts on the fact that there won’t be another terror attack between now and the early primary states. A passive strategy trusts in recent historical trends rather than present realities. A passive strategy ignores the lessons of a longer look at history, one that shows the American electorate can shift suddenly and that populism has an enduring appeal.
Most important, a passive strategy isn’t leadership. Cruz and Rubio are both gifted communicators in their own ways, they’ve both staked out important ground in Washington waging rear-guard actions against the Obama administration’s lawlessness and excesses (why isn’t Rubio more effectively trumpeting his successful opposition to Obamacare’s insurance-company bailouts?), and they both have thoughtful (though differing) responses to the challenges from ISIS, Iran, and Russia. But they’re not yet leading.
#related#Now is the time. A presidential campaign is an early test of leadership, a proving ground for dealing with the challenges of the world’s most difficult job. I don’t want the last man standing. I want the guy who took down the king. If Trump can absorb the best shots from the Republican party’s best young talent, then he deserves the nomination. If one of the two talented freshman senators can dethrone The Donald, then at least we have some assurance that they can first stand strong against the coming Clinton onslaught and then have the strength of will to lead a nation desperate not just for wisdom but for the right kind of tough-minded leadership.
So between now and the Iowa caucuses, spare us the calculating ambition and the strategic opportunism. Rubio and Cruz: Show us you can lead.