The Lesson Rubio (Almost) Learned From the GOP Debate

Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, right, and
Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, right, and Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 presidential candidate, speak during the Republican presidential primary candidate debate sponsored by CNN and Telemundo at the University of Houston in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016. Trump holds a substantial lead in the southern region where Republican voters have their say on March 1, displaying remarkable strength for a twice-divorced New Yorker in Bible Belt states home to some of the nation's most conservative voters. Photographer: Gary Coronado/Pool via Bloomberg

Oh, Marco. Two steps forward, one step back.

Sen. Marco Rubio won praise for doing two things at CNN's debate on Thursday night: 1) going after Donald Trump by calling him names, and 2) throwing at least three or four whole chapters of his opposition research book at Trump. Rubio's take-away from that success -- his lesson learned, his "a-ha" moment -- was to keep calling Trump names. He has been hurling insults ever since. But of the two potential lessons he could have learned, that was the wrong one.

The lesson that Rubio should have taken away from the debate was not about the name-calling. Trump is a master of the craft, a black belt of insult jiu-jitsu.

No, the lesson that Rubio should have learned was that the way to throw Trump off is to unload multiple attacks on his failed, corrupt and hypocritical business dealings. Polish workers! Fake university! Daddy's $200 million inheritance! It is a strategy that is pure genius.

If I were still managing political campaigns, I would have advised mapping out a timeline of attacks over several weeks or months. Throw a different bombshell each week to keep the other guy on defense and knock him off message. Pick one weakness, hammer away at it every day for a week, then pick another one, and repeat the process. Luckily, I don't run campaigns anymore, because that advice would have been wrong. Trump is never "on message," so you can't get him off message. He doesn't have a specific strategy, so there's no sense in trying to disrupt his battle plan.

The genius that Rubio demonstrated at Thursday's debate was not to throw one bomb, but to lob his entire arsenal. The only time Trump was ever genuinely flummoxed was when the hits started coming. And then they just kept on coming, one after another, so fast that he could barely process them. To refute them, he needed to get deep into the details of each attack, and details are not Trump's strength. Details are especially hard to convey in a 30-second rebuttal. Suddenly, Trump was trapped in the foxhole.

If establishment Republicans want to stop Trump, they can't treat him like an ordinary candidate. They can't defeat him with personal attacks. They can't defeat him on ideology by saying he's not a true conservative. They can't defeat him with the usual slow-but-steady revelation of scandals, each worse than the last. No, the way to defeat Trump is to carpet-bomb him with oppo research. Make the sand glow.