The GOP presidential race has been dominated by one inimitable, sarcastic, sharp-tongued force: Donald Trump. With a unique and abrasive political style that thrives in a space where political correctness is alien and “filter” is a foreign language, Trump has changed the look and sound of Republican politics. He is a political newcomer who many (including this author) thought would long ago make that damning strategic or rhetorical error and fall away into the shadows of the many also-rans and be but a distant memory of a long campaign.
Donald Trump has defied those expectations as powerfully as he has defied Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment.
Yet, over the past few weeks something has changed, and Wednesday night’s debate may be a watershed moment for a new kind of political transformation in this odd presidential race. Donald Trump has quieted down some, changed some of his message and done the unthinkable. He has become a more legitimate candidate. Pundits, political strategists and even party disciples are beginning to think out loud that there is a possibility that Donald Trump may be the Republican Party nominee for president.
He has become more legitimate because he found that while the inflammatory may have put him on the map, it surely won’t keep him there. And while Trump has disrupted the race frequently and dramatically over the course of the past several months, the past few weeks have been the most interesting to watch. The GOP has been sucked into a bizarre Trading Places-style existence wherein Trump has come to look more like a professional presidential candidate and the professional presidential candidates (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and, wait who else is even running?) have looked…well…more Trump-like. The non-Trump forces in the race are having frustrated, flip, unguarded moments in front of crowds and cameras. They are making errors that you would expect from a political novice and not a Governor or Senator or a man or woman who has spent a life in politics.
Trump may not be embracing establishment Republican ideas but he is starting to move closer to establishment style. Meanwhile the establishment seems to be going through a combination of mid-life crisis and dissociative disorder and the race we thought we once knew looks absolutely unrecognizable.
But it’s more than just a veneer of changing style, these changes are having significant effects on the GOP race. Trump is not going away, but with each passing day it seems like Bush, Rubio and several other GOP contenders risk disappearing into the political ether. Wednesday’s debate presents Trump a real opportunity to mow down opponents and rise from their remains. He cannot reinvent himself, but he has to project a presidential style and a political legitimacy that will make people take a second look at him.
That second look is crucial because we know voters are already doing it. As the well-funded, well-named, well-established candidates look less viable, people have flocked to Carly Fiorina or Ben Carson as alternatives, as outsiders, as anything more palatable than Donald Trump. These GOP voters are moving on from their once-favored choices, and they are ready to embrace someone different, but that someone is not Donald Trump…yet.
And so on the debate stage, Donald Trump is at a crossroads. He can let the momentum that flowed to Ben Carson over the last week continue to help the Maryland neurosurgeon. Or he can understand what is happening in GOP circles like a business negotiation. He needs to recognize people are ready to give up the product they always liked, and Donald Trump needs to convince them he has the best substitute. The entertainer in him has locked down about 25% of the vote. The president in him needs to poke through that hardened, often offensive exterior and let him lock down another 15-20%.
For this Halloween, Donald Trump needs the best costume he can find. If he pulls it off, he’ll have the biggest bag of goodies he could imagine, and Ben Carson and the rest of the GOP field will be left with nothing but political candy corn.