Last February at the Conservative Political Action Conference, few people were already taking the Republican primary campaign seriously, so the supposed candidacy of Donald Trump provided nothing more than an amusing distraction, at best. The billionaire self-promoter and reality-show host continued to insist that he was serious about considering a run for the White House through March, when he adopted the Birther conspiracy as the main plank in his platform. Thanks to his name recognition, Trump garnered some polling support while the rest of the would-be candidates waited to start their campaigns. At one point in April, Trump even threatened to run as an independent if he didn't win the Republican nomination.
By the end of that month, however, the White House tired of the freak show and released Barack Obama's certificate of live birth. Two weeks later, Trump's polling support collapsed, and three weeks after that, Trump bowed out of the race. The focus then shifted to the more serious Republican candidates — in other words, those who didn't have reality shows to promote.
Why not just have MSNBC host a debate moderated by Barack Obama?
Six months later, Trump has unfired himself. Last week, the billionaire partnered with conservative publication Newsmax to announce a new debate in Iowa, which Trump himself plans to moderate. The debate will take place on December 27, one week before Iowa voters go to the caucuses to select their choice for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump has even renewed his threat to make an independent run if he decides that none of the Republican candidates meet his standards, and as he tried once again to breathe new life into birtherism.
How did we get here? In truth, Trump has never entirely left the race. Since his ignominious exit in May, many of the Republican candidates in the race have held high-profile meetings with Trump. Until now, there hasn't been any real downside to such meetings, even if the ring-kissing may look rather unseemly. Trump has plenty of cash, which would attract the attention of any political candidate. On top of that, paying respects to The Donald might have mollified him enough to head off a Trump independent bid. All Trump really seems to care about is being the center of attention, and a few uncomfortable moments around dinner wouldn't be too high a price to keep him from making any more mischief.
Unfortunately, Trump has returned to the forefront, abetted by a conservative publication that inexplicably hired disgraced former CNN executive Eason Jordan to produce the debate. Jordan is the same man who in 2005 accused the American military of deliberately assassinating journalists in Iraq, and who admitted to airing Saddam Hussein's propaganda as news to curry enough favor with the regime to keep CNN's Baghdad bureau open. If one of the purported motives in creating this new forum is to provide an alternative to the "mainstream media" and its hidden agendas, as a few Trump defenders insist, it's a little difficult to see how having Jordan producing a debate moderated by a man who keeps threatening to run against the Republicans achieves this goal. Why not just have MSNBC host a debate moderated by Barack Obama?
Equally mystifying, at least two Republican candidates have agreed to participate in this debate. Rick Santorum can't afford to miss an opportunity, but what is Newt Gingrich thinking? The new GOP frontrunner doesn't need the exposure at this point. Moreover, Gingrich has spent the last few months ripping conventional debates' formats. He offered an alternative last month with Herman Cain on entitlement reform, and will meet Jon Huntsman next Monday for another "Lincoln-Douglas"-style debate on foreign policy in New Hampshire. Now, in the name of being "open to new ways of doing things," Gingrich will end up granting respectability to a forum hosted by a self-promoter who might just end up being one of his opponents in November 2012. It's not likely that the cheesy game-show vibe of the current media debate format will be greatly improved by an actual game-show host.
Not every Republican candidate will play along with the farce. Jon Huntsman told Fox News' Martha McCallum that he was "not going to kiss his (Trump's) ring, and I'm not going to kiss any other part of his anatomy." Ron Paul openly scoffed at Trump's involvement, and the efforts by other Republicans to curry his favor, calling Trump's forum "beneath the office of the presidency." As if to prove that point, Trump responded by calling Paul and Huntsman "joke candidates," which hardly becomes a moderator of a debate. Imagine the Republican outrage had Wolf Blitzer said something similar before a CNN debate, or anyone from MSNBC. Republican voters would have demanded their removal from any further debates — and rightly so.
Fortunately, the Republican candidates in this race can enforce those standards. They should heed the advice of Karl Rove, who marveled Monday at the very thought that any GOP candidates would give exposure to a man threatening to run against them in 2012. "Anybody who thinks that Donald Trump is going to be the equivalent of Bret Baier or any of the other moderators we've had is kidding themselves," Rove warned. "It's going to be a giant ego trip." It's already been a giant ego trip for Trump this year at the expense of the Republican field, and it's time to call an end to it.