Why it matters that Donald Trump is attacking Mitt Romney

The Iowa Freedom Summit Saturday was a platform for conservatives considering a run for president, and Donald Trump was on the attack. It hinted at what lies ahead.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Donald Trump gestures to the audience before speaking at the Freedom Summit Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa.

With all due respect, the Republican Party could probably do with a lot less of what was heard at the Iowa Freedom Summit Saturday.

On one hand, that might seem strange, considering that the Iowa Freedom Summit was all about getting America back to its "core principles of pro-growth economics, social conservatism, and a strong national defense," according to the event website.

What could be more Republican than that?

Combine that with the fact that a number of potential Republican presidential candidates appeared to see the event as the unofficial kickoff for the 2016 campaign, and it seemed a snapshot of the immediate future of American conservatism.

But then Donald Trump spoke.

He called Mitt Romney a "choker" for losing the 2012 presidential race to President Obama, and then said that Jeb Bush's brother – former President George W. Bush – was the man who gave America Mr. Obama in the first place. 


Democrats would call that a two-fer. In one fell swoop, Mr. Trump brutally exposed the potentially fatal weaknesses of the two Republicans who might well have broader appeal than any others on the presumptive Republican ticket (New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie possibly excluded).

Of course, this is what Trump does. The chances of him running for president are roughly equal to the chances that Earth will be overrun by Ewoks by Memorial Day. (In other words, not very likely.) He was there for microphone and the money shots of his legendary hair. 

But his comments were just an inkling of the 18 months ahead.

To be honest, Republicans would appear to have a difficult-enough task in November 2016. Yes, it's far too early to even attempt to think we know how the presidential race will play out. But from the vantage point of the present – the only one Republicans have – Team Hillary looks formidable.

The in-fighting of a primary season (not to mention the emerging pre-primary season) isn't likely to help.

In the past, a long primary season might have been an advantage. It was a gamut of electoral tests as a prelude to the final exam – an opportunity for candidates to hone their messages and gain a measure of campaign seasoning.

Those dynamics still exist, but they have perhaps been trumped by the danger of friendly fire, particularly for a Republican Party split between its establishment and populist wings.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, for example, essentially called other Republicans chickens in his address to the Iowa Freedom Summit Saturday.

"One of the most important roles for the men and women in this room is to look each candidate in the eye and say, 'Don't talk; show me,' " he said, according to the Tea Party News Network.

What followed was a list of principles from religious liberty to marriage, in which Cruz portrayed himself as the fighter, at one point declaring: "If you say you oppose Obamacare, show me where you stood up and fought against it."

Instances of party ideologues attacking centrists are nothing new. But in today's media environment, where every gaffe and zinger is amplified by partisan blogs and 24-hour news, there is the danger that a candidate's story can be irrevocably marred or rewritten before the "real" election even begins. When Mr. Romney won the nomination in 2012, it came with an apparent sigh.

So the Republican Party is taking steps to fix the problem. In December, it proposed new rules that would drastically reduce the length of its presidential primary season, quarantining it to a 3-1/2 month window from February to mid-May. The nominating convention would happen in June.

In 2012, when the convention took place in August, the entire process took six months.

The idea is to get events like Saturday's out of the way earlier. Then everyone can move on to saying Trumpian things about Hillary. 

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