To the list of absolutely crucial wedge issues distinguishing the Republican primary candidates, this week added a new one: What is your position on Donald Trump? In my latest TIME column (subscription required), I look at the latest step in the reality-TV-ification of the Republican primary—Trump’s plan to moderate a GOP debate later this month—and how it reflects the bifurcated race between (for now anyway) “frontrunner” Newt Gingrich and “favorite” Mitt Romney.
Gingrich and Romney’s responses to the debate offer showed the difference between their style and their political positioning. Gingrich accepted almost instantly, seeming to relish what a hoot appearing on “Apprentice President” would be. This underscored, first, that Newt Gingrich loves to argue. He owes his rise in the polls not just to the collapse of all the other anti-Romney candidates but to a string of widely well-reviewed debate performances, appealing to Republicans who really want someone to tear the hide off Obama on a debate stage. Gingrich is the debate candidate. He will debate anyone, anywhere about anything. He is to debating what Sesame Street’s Count is to counting. You meet him in line at Starbucks, and he will challenge you to a three-hour Lincoln-Douglas-style debate over half-and-half vs. 2% milk.
Moreover, Gingrich’s acceptance seemed to be a nod to the segment of the Republican base that loves Trump, or, at least, hates the pundits and political establishment figures who hate Trump. Gingrich’s other calling card has been as the debate candidate most willing to attack the traditional-media moderators, so it figures that he would jump to attend a debate with this very non-traditional moderator. Does it risk making him look like a joke, by association with a guy who’s spent most of the year making politics into a joke? Sure—just not necessarily among the people who will actually determine who gets the Republican nomination.
Romney, meanwhile, turned down the debate this week in a very Mitt-Romney fashion. He made a bold statement of personal principle, after a four-day pause so that he and his advisers could carefully determine what his personal principle was. Romney’s brand, and his source of strength, is different from Gingrich’s. His selling point—besides business experience—is his image as the careful, cautious, reasonable candidate most likely to win among independent and moderate voters in a general election. As I say in my column:
For months, press coverage of the GOP race has focused on two front runners: the guy Republicans say they want to vote for and the guy (Romney) political handicappers insist Republicans will actually vote for instead. There are certainly good reasons to argue for Romney’s inevitability. He has not run against a single strong contender but instead a kind of noncorporeal conservative spirit–”Not-Mitt”–which, like Bob from Twin Peaks or Lord Voldemort in the first Harry Potter novel, assumes one human host after another until their mortal husks prove too weak. Romney has the organization, the money, the endorsements and the hair. He is leading the primary race by every measure except how many people want him to be the President.
To maintain that image, he needs to consider the opinions of the George Wills and Karl Roves of the GOP, as well as the judgment of the various press pundits who have assumed—even as he’s trailed in the polls repeatedly—that primary voters will come around to him anyway because he’s the “sensible” choice. So: no Trump debate for him.
But Romney can’t just diss Trump, as Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman showily did. That could land him in an ugly public feud with Trump—which only Trump would enjoy—or send the message to Republican base voters that he’s a creature of the political establishment that they don’t seem to like this year. Romney needs Trump, but just this much of him. He has to carefully titrate his level of Trump exposure. Thus he paid his respects in a visit to Trump, but carefully did so away from the cameras. And when he turned down the Trump debate, he did it with a personal phone call and compliments and the fig-leaf that, oh my heck, his schedule was just jam-packed that week. (It might eventually help Romney to Sister-Souljah a guy like Trump, but not until the general election, if he makes it that far.) Trump took it in stride, adding the perhaps not-welcome comment that Romney wants his endorsement “very badly.”
The right thing to do, sure, is to refuse to inflate Trump’s already dirigible-sized self-estimation and reward his political ambitions, based on self-promotion, a reality show and birtherism. But the politically expedient thing to do is another question, and this whole incident is yet another example why the election has been the biggest guilty-pleasure reality show of 2011.