By DeWayne Wickham
When it became clear the Republican presidential debate for which he had been tapped to serve as ringmaster would have few participants, Donald Trump started plotting revenge.
Only two of the party’s seven top presidential contenders – Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum – agreed to show up for Trump's December 27 debate in Des Moines, Iowa. Trump blamed the unwillingness of the others to attend on their concern that he wouldn’t be a fair manager of the event. That’s a fear Trump has delighted in stoking.
"If they pick somebody who I think can't win and if they pick somebody who is, in my opinion, the wrong person … and if the economy continues to be bad, I might run as an independent," Trump told USA TODAY a few days ago, repeating the hollow threat he made in June, shortly after announcing he would not seek the Republican presidential nomination.
He’s bluffing. With an ego as big as his, Trump would never submit himself to the judgment of this nation’s voters. For all is tough talk, he can’t stomach the possibility of finishing a distant third in next year’s presidential contest. So instead he has burrowed his way into the center of a fight within the GOP that endangers the party’s chances of retaking the White House in 2012. This struggle is a battle between the GOP’s center-right and the senseless right.
The center-right is led by people like Republican political strategist Karl Rove, Sen. Tom Coburn, R- Okla., and Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman who now cross-dresses as a morning talk show host. They are unnerved by prospect of the erratic Gingrich winning the GOP presidential nomination and then losing badly in the general election to President Obama. Such a defeat would likely drag a lot of other Republicans down to defeat.
Trump and Gingrich are the most visible leaders of the senseless right. They’re the GOP’s Harold & Kumar. They long ago overdosed on their inflated sense of self – and are intoxicated by their contempt for anyone who fails to acknowledge their greatness. Their brashness appeals to the Republican Party’s right-wing base but would almost certainly offend many of the swing voters who decide the outcome of general elections.
Early in the campaign members of the GOP’s center-right saw Trump as a political carnival barker who got people excited but would never be the main show. Gingrich was a gadfly with too many well-publicized bad acts to be a serious contender for the Republican nomination. But it seems members of the GOP’s senseless right see them as bare-knuckle fighters, who aren’t afraid of bloodying Obama’s nose.
Gingrich is their candidate for president. But to the Republican’s center-right, he is an ideological-loose-cannon whose only real commitment is to his own wealth and ambition, not the conservatism they champion – and to which he pays only lip service.
"The Republican establishment will never make peace with Newt Gingrich," Scarborough said on a recent airing of his MSNBC show Morning Joe. But with a growing lead over the other contenders in national polls – and the prospect of him racking up early victories in three of the first four states where the Republicans will hold caucuses or primaries in January, Gingrich is starting to look like the guy to beat for the GOP presidential nomination.
But to beat Gingrich, his center right opponents who have forsworn peace will have to make war on him. And to stop Trump’s troublesome grandstanding they must call his third-party bluff.