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Five pieces of advice for Donald Trump on the GOP debates

Donald Trump is leading the Republican field in many surveys and now faces his biggest test, the upcoming GOP debates. His rivals are angry and some of them have called for him to withdraw from the race or apologize for rude comments. On the eve of the televised debates, here is some advice for the candidate.

1. End the nastygrams

I thought it was just me who got nasty notes from you. In my recent Brookings Institution Press book, Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust (see www.Brookings.edu/Billionaires),  I tell the story about your reaction to my newspaper comment that you shouldn’t be invited to speak at the 2012 Republican National Convention because you would bring the nominee nothing but trouble. You had your assistant call to ask for my email address and I foolishly gave it to her. Shortly thereafter, she sent me a missive in which you pasted in my comments about you and wrote in big, black, bold letters, “DARRELL, YOU ARE A FOOL! BEST WISHES, DONALD J. TRUMP.”

That hurt my feelings because I thought I was the only one you ever had criticized. But from your press coverage, I now see that I was not special. You were sending nastygrams to lots of reporters and commentators (and threatening to sue others). You made fun of them and called them stupid, ignorant, or losers. I understand it hurts to be criticized. But you are running for president. Stop sending nasty notes or having your lawyer call people who do things you dislike. Enduring criticism on the campaign trail is good training for being president. Remember that Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama endured a lot of abuse, personal comments, and false statements. This comes with seeking the highest office in the land. 

2. Understand that your greatest vulnerabilities are hypocrisy and flip-flopping

Many of your strongest critics have complained about your lack of presidential temperament. They say that your recent comments and actions disqualify you from being president. I do have to say that comment about Sen. John McCain not being a war hero was completely over the top. And broadcasting Sen. Lindsay Graham’s cellphone number was outrageous. Don’t try that with Angela Merkel. She will make German mincemeat of you. Ditto for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or House Speaker John Boehner. They would not be amused by that kind of behavior.

But temperament is not your greatest vulnerability. You have positioned yourself as a white knight too rich to be bought. You claim that you tell the truth that others are afraid to say. You say that you are a strong leader who can stand up to tough leaders in Russia and China. Indeed, your strong rhetoric on immigration and wanting to make America great again is why you appeal to many Republican voters.

Your greatest vulnerabilities are hypocrisy and flip-flopping. Strong leaders don’t say one thing and then reverse course when the political landscape changes. They don’t claim to be a Democrat who thinks there should be a wealth tax on the ultra-rich, and then positions himself as an anti-government, conservative crusader. They don’t blast Hillary Clinton when it is politically convenient but then invite her to their wedding. They don’t come out for universal health care, but then complain about a leader who does that.

Your harshest moments in the upcoming debates will be when opponents use your own words against you. That is how white knights have been defeated in the past and it will be your greatest challenge. Republican voters may look at your past statements and conclude you can’t be trusted to deliver the message they want. Unless you have some really good explanations for these shifts, voters will come to see you as just another politician who will say anything to get elected.

3. Realize if you get 15 percent of the vote in a 17-person field, you will finish in the top three

Some people expect you to fade away into oblivion. Presidential candidates like you have burst onto the scene and garnered a lot of attention, but burned out fast. But those were races where there were a small number of candidates. Your opponents should realize from their internal surveys that a significant segment of the Republican electorate likes it when you insult Mexicans and complain about moderate Republicans.  That is the red meat they devour. You understand things about GOP voters that the news media and other Republicans don’t realize. There is a nativist wing of the Republican Party that hates immigrants and will walk over hot coals for someone who will say politically incorrect things. You are right that there is an audience for what you have to say.

4. Understand if you get 15 percent of the vote in a three-person race, you lose

You have a great strategy for a crowded primary field. Being provocative and dominating the news coverage has catapulted you out of the field into a leading position. But this is a terrible strategy for the nominating process once the field winnows down to a few candidates after Iowa and New Hampshire. It is an even worse strategy for a general election campaign regardless of whether you run as the GOP nominee or an independent candidate.

To put it bluntly, you understand what it takes to get to the semifinals, but not the championship game. Unless your goal is just to have some fun for a few months and bask in the public attention, you need to wise up. You require a strategy for moving beyond a narrow segment of the Republican vote. Think longer-term than just the next few months. That is what smart business leaders do. They anticipate the future and have a strategy for achieving their ultimate goals. You need a long-term strategy for political success.

5. Learn to make fun of yourself

One of the ways that politicians appeal to voters is by making fun of themselves. Voters like strong leaders, but they also appreciate humility, modesty, and good humor. Remember when people in 1980 said Ronald Reagan was too old to be president? Reagan brought the house down against Democrat Walter Mondale in a debate when he promised not to use his opponent’s youth and inexperience against him. There clearly will be many attacks against you in the upcoming debates. Think about some funny lines regarding your hair, wealth, and penchant for self-aggrandizement. You could joke that the most dangerous place for someone to be is between you and a TV camera. That will make you seem more human and approachable. Voters like people with some awareness about how they come across to others.

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