Donald Trump's whirlwind presidential bid is now history, but his short-lived, volatile candidacy may be illuminating to his GOP colleagues. Even though he will be reduced in history as a footnote to this election, Trump soared in the polls with his in-your-face political style, reflecting a Republican yearning for someone to challenge President Obama toe to toe.
Washington Post political columnist Chris Cillizza described Trump's Icarus-like rise and fall as a cautionary tale for 2012 GOP contenders. He quotes senior Republican strategist Scott Reed as saying, "Donald Trump was an anti-establishment figure who demonstrated the importance of taking the debate right to Obama frontally and hard, which the eventual GOP nominee must do daily to win."
Rob Stutzman, a California GOp strategist, echoes the point. "He had the appeal of a candidate who would brawl with Obama on behalf of the rank and file and create contrast."
The lesson from Trump may be a hard pill to swallow for remaining candidates, Cillizza suggests. "Any sign of agreement — or even willingness to think about agreeing — with the President is viewed as capitulation within some non-insignificant element of the Republican party, many of whom identify closely with the tea party movement."
Cillizza notes former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has the albatross of his state's health care reform bill, former Utah Governor John Huntsman served as ambassador to China in the Obama administration and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty earlier supported cap-and-trade legislation.
"The birther issue was stupid and contrived," Stutzman said, "but it should demonstrate to legitimate candidates that you can stand out by being the candidate who engages Obama on substance like taxes, homeland security and spending." Cillizza added, "Trump's willingness to fight mattered more than the substances if what triggered the fight."
The Trump elephant-in-the-room style highlights the classic Republican challenge in running for office – a lot of your would-be voters don't like government and aren't tolerant of men and women who have been in government and tried to make it work.
The 2012 GOP presidential field is beginning to take shape with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich deciding to jump in and putative frontrunner Mike Huckabee electing to keep his well-paying job at Fox News. On Meet the Press over the weekend, Gingrich was Trump-like, except his barbs about radical Medicare changes were aimed at fellow Republican Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee.
In damage control mode this week after his Ryan remark, Gingrich told David Gregory, host of Meet the Press, “One of the painful lessons I’ve had to learn — and I haven't fully learned it honestly — is that if you seek to be president of the United States, you are never an analyst, you're never a college teacher. Because those folks can say what they want to say. And someone who offers to lead America has to be much more disciplined and much more thoughtful."
The next opportunity to watch GOP contenders stake out their political positioning comes June 13 with a debate in New Hampshire. It will be interesting, Cillizza says, to see if anyone tries to channel Trump.