The Republican schoolyard playground

Political debates and political ads can take on the tenor of an elementary school playground, with bullies and whiners and tattletales.  This is what's happening now in the Republican primary race, and it's not helping anybody.

There is only one time when attack ads or specific mano-a-mano debate charges have a chance of working: when an election is a binary choice, one between just two candidates.  At that time – and only at that time – can one candidate elevate his own chances by tearing down another's chances for success.

But unlike the Democrats, the Republicans do not have a binary choice.  An attack by one candidate against another may hurt the target of the attack, but it does nothing to elevate the one making the attack – and it may even hurt him.  It's even worse when the attacks devolve into petty bickering – trading charges of "liar, liar" or arguing endlessly (and in two languages) over minor policy points that matter to few who are not actually on the debate stage.

The dynamics of petty bickering aren't pretty.  What's worse, the fate of Chris Christie has already proven – as if any proof had been needed – that those tactics just don't work in a crowded field of candidates.

Christie spent his entire last week in the presidential campaign attacking Marco Rubio, instead of putting forth any reason for New Hampshire voters to support the big man from New Jersey.  To the extent that he wanted to tarnish Marco, he succeeded.  However, his single-minded focus on Rubio instead of on himself left Christie mired in single digits, unable to move forward.  As a case study in self-inflicted disaster, the end of the Christie campaign couldn't be any clearer.

However, four of the survivors don't seem to have noticed.  They also didn't seem to notice how Ohio Governor John Kasich, with his unrelentingly positive message – all focused on why he would make a good presidential candidate – worked some good New Hampshire. 

So instead of each candidate making his case to the voters, we see Trump acting like a schoolyard bully, demanding that Cruz apologize for "lying," lest Trump sue Cruz to prove the Canadian-born Texas senator isn't a natural-born American.  Cruz, for his part, is attacking Trump for positions he'd once held (those are the "lies" Trump wants Cruz to apologize for), even as he and Rubio exchange charges of "liar, liar" for their evolving stands on a long-dead amnesty bill.

Then, when it comes to Bush, Trump is again acting the bully, throwing around charges against President George W. Bush (who, last time I checked, wasn't running – but who has a huge approval rating among South Carolina Republicans).  These are charges so extreme that previously they had been heard issued only by the likes of Michael Moore or by some of Ron Paul's more extreme tinfoil-hat conspiracy-loving supporters.  These attacks are not only beyond the pale for Republicans, but also over the line for all but the most extreme Democrats.  Jeb Bush, in his turn, is trying to turn this kerfuffle back on Trump with his own attacks and charges, primarily about positions The Donald may have held ten, twenty or even thirty years ago. 

As if anybody cares.

The only bright spot for Bush is that his brother, the President, was out there yesterday making a case for Jeb.  In South Carolina, and especially in the face of Trump's over-the-top charges, this might actually help, though it's not yet showing up in the polls.  That help will not be enough to move Jeb Bush to the second tier, but it will help him some – and frankly, if the polls are any indication, with just 7 percent of South Carolina Republican voters supporting him, he needs all the help he can get.

As each of these presidential wannabes spends air time and ad dollars on these varied attacks, he loses sight of the need to make the case – here's why you should vote for me – to primary voters and caucus goers who might want to support him. 

Right now, despite his increasingly extreme charges against President Bush and outlandish legal threats against Cruz, Trump still looks to be the odds-on favorite in South Carolina.  Yesterday's Public Policy Polling survey has Trump at 35 percent, compared to 18 each for Cruz and Rubio. 

No one else is even close.

Attacking Trump has proven futile, even dangerous, if only because he returns tit for tat and has a bigger megaphone.  Those two candidates who still have a chance at becoming the sole surviving anti-Trump candidate – Cruz and Rubio – need to focus on making their case as the better-than-Trump candidate.  They're not going to get anywhere attacking Trump.  And they're especially not going to get anywhere attacking each other – unless, of course, they want to be the next Chris Christie.

Until they get out of the schoolyard and start acting like actual presidential-caliber candidates, the Republicans will continue to hurt themselves, even as they hurt others.  That is no way to win the presidency.