Remember way back to two weeks ago when the Donald Trump candidacy was the best thing to ever happen to Jeb Bush?
The billionaire business mogul would distract the other contenders for the nomination, the Bush team assured pundits all over Washington. Trump is “other people’s problem,” declared Mike Murphy, chief strategist of the pro-Bush Super PAC Right to Rise. The Donald would allow Jeb to just keep on chugging along. Bush would become the safe and responsible brand—the Honda Odyssey of 2016—to which panicked Republicans would eventually flock.
That didn’t last long. A week after boasting that it would ignore Trump, with its usual Clouseau-like finesse, JebWorld decided to hit Trump every day. Which means every GOP candidate is now playing Donald Trump’s game instead of their own—and doing about as well as you’d expect.
The decision to engage him has outsized consequences for the GOP “brand,” whatever that is these days. Not since Joan Collins sauntered onto the set of “Dynasty” or Gary Coleman uttered his first “Whatch talkin’ about, Willis,” has anyone so dominated a universe as Donald Trump has the GOP. Trump single-handedly has moved the GOP to the right on immigration, to the left on free trade and in circles on pretty much everything else. He has the other candidates so confused that they are stepping all over their own messages. After all, how else can one explain Bush’s latest effort to show he is not an establishment loser by going flaunting an endorsement from Eric Cantor, the most notorious establishment loser in history?
Practically every candidate in the race is now engaging in and losing a war of insults, aping Trump’s issue agenda and in some instances pilfering his best lines.
Consider Governor Scott Walker, whose career seems to be vanishing before our very eyes. First, the Wisconsin governor appropriated Trump’s catchphrase “Make America Great Again” (which, by the way, was appropriated from Ronald Reagan). Then Walker tried to out Trump Trump on China with a widely panned call for President Obama to cancel his upcoming visit with Xi Jinping—a move that would not only poison Sino-American relations and make the United States look petulant and weak, but at such a late date that it would be just plain rude.
Even Trump didn’t go that far. (He did however suggest that Obama save money on a state dinner by buying President Xi a McDonald’s hamburger—which is the best PR McDonald’s has had in years.)
After last week’s stock market tumble, Governor Mike Huckabee, who is reportedly still running for president, stole some of Trump’s most familiar lines, tweeting: “It’s time to build America’s economy, not China’s or Mexico’s, & quit importing cheap labor & exporting jobs overseas.”
But of all the candidates seeking to replicate Trump, Bush has performed the worst. Perhaps because he’s the one most unlike him.
Contradicting its week-old vow to not “uncork money on Donald Trump,” the Right to Rise PAC paid for a plane to buzz over Trump’s mammoth Alabama rally with the idea of mocking him. Instead the sad and puttering two-seater provided an unintentional metaphor against Trump’s gold-plated jumbo jet of a campaign.
After that, Jeb followed Trump down to the Mexican border simultaneously attacking Trump and emulating him. Which turned out to be an even bigger mistake.
For days now, Jeb has tried to explain his use of the term “anchor babies” to describe the American-born children of illegal immigrants. This purportedly offended someone somewhere—and Bush has been apologizing and yet not apologizing for it ever since. His first defense was that he wasn’t impugning Hispanics, but Asians because, as columnist Matt Bai noted, “what Republicans really need right now is another massive nonwhite segment of society that won’t vote for them.”
The fracas exposed the stark difference between the two men, their campaigns, their poll numbers. While Trump’s response to critics of the term was basically a two-word sentence that starts with an F, poor Jeb was left to implore a reporter, “You give me a better term and I’ll use it.” Another statement that, thanks to Trump, will follow Bush all the way through the general election, should he ever make it that far.
Should he step out of the race tomorrow, Donald Trump has changed the shape of the 2016 race forever. The only question for the rest of the candidates in the field is what to do about it. All of the available options offer serious risks—and most have already failed.
# 1. Ignore him
This was the original GOP strategy, “nothing to see here.” (Hat tip: Leslie Nielsen.) Ignoring Trump was never going to succeed. It was like going to Las Vegas and never looking at a casino or getting pregnant and trying to keep your job at Amazon.
#2. Attack him
So far, Trump’s been called a rapist, a misogynist, a racist, a lying toupee-wearer and—worst of all in political circles—a closet Democrat. The latest attack is to compare him to Hitler. Each time his poll numbers have risen. What’s left? Blaming him for 9/11?
Trump has fired back at candidates tossing a barb his way with his usual mix of glee and humiliation. Responding to a new poll of South Carolina voters, for example, Trump tweeted to his flailing nemesis, Lindsey Graham: “Congrats. You just got 4 points in your home state of SC—far better than zero nationally. You’re only 26 pts behind me.”
#3. Cast him out
GOP leaders already have been floating trial balloons of keeping Trump’s name from appearing on primary ballots. This is, by far, the most dangerous option. One that would infuriate his sizable bloc of supporters and all but guarantee a third-party bid. It also is the gutsiest, which pretty much ensures that GOP leaders won’t try it.
#4. Make a Deal
Trump, the consummate dealmaker, can’t resist a good “offer he can’t refuse.” But short of promising to rename the White House after him, letting him rule a nation of his choosing, deporting Rosie O’Donnell and Megyn Kelly, or allowing him to own the moon, what could they possibly have that he’d care about?
#5. Bore him.
Now this one has a shot. Instead of clamping down on the number of debates, have even more of them—each one devoted to arcane subjects like fishing rights, the law of the sea treaty, and U.S. policy toward Botswana. The problem is Trump’s not the only one who’d be bored—the GOP would probably lose all of the other candidates, too.
#6. Accept it.
This is the last available option. Stop scheming ways to upend Trump’s campaign and just accept the following: Donald Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. He is not going to be easily thrown off his game. And every day that passes makes it less likely he’ll self-destruct. Toss out the campaign playbook you’ve constructed, and adjust everything accordingly.
Acceptance is hard—not only because it requires a change in thinking. But because acknowledging that Washington politicos can’t stop Trump or control voters’ thinking exposes their declining influence. And that’s what’s really ticked everyone off about Donald Trump.
Matt Latimer is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. He is currently a co-partner in Javelin, a literary agency and communications firm based in Alexandria, and contributing editor at Politico Magazine.