×

In a post-Trump world, here's the biggest danger for the GOP

US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images
US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump

Wednesday night's debate may not have delivered any knockout blows to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, or changed many voters' minds. But Trump's positives and negatives from the "Duel in the Desert" do provide the Republican Party with some very important guidelines on how to survive post-election 2016. In short, the GOP must copy Trump's defiant fighting spirit but add more clarity to the message.

Defiance and audacity have been the cornerstones of Trump's campaign from day one. And it's not so much the issues he chose, like illegal immigration, but the fighting spirit and tone of his words that attracted so many Republican primary voters.

Remember, primary voters tend to be much more partisan than general election voters overall. Those Republicans are the ones who came into 2016 angry that the GOP Congress they voted into power on Capitol Hill had failed to end Obamacare, failed to stop the Iran nuclear deal, and failed to have the guts to use its Constitutional power of the purse to cut funding for the Democratic agenda.

They saw a Republican Party that was too meek to even shut down the government for a few days. Trump's angry tone last night and all year was catnip for them, and the decision by his primary opponents like Jeb Bush and John Kasich to push their wise and reserved personas in contrast backfired badly. The people are angry, and the Republican voters are really angry. The elected GOP establishment either refuses to get that, or is too comfortable with the status quo to address it.

That defiant anger has been present in Trump in each one of the three debates, last night included. Of course, it's been a constant at his rallies, interviews, and his Twitter feed. When his GOP opponents tried to sound the alarm bells about the way he was carrying himself, it came off like they didn't care as much about the direction the country was taking as the voters did themselves. And this is about all the voters, not just angry Tea Party Republicans or laid-off workers. The passion for immediate and sweeping change from Bernie Sanders' supporters and his impressive run in the primaries prove that.

So, the biggest danger for the Republicans if Trump wins or loses is they'll convince themselves that a more reserved, Jeb Bush/Mitt Romney-like style, is the way to go. Perhaps it's a byproduct of having control of Congress for most of the last 22 years, but that kind of restraint implies a comfort with the status quo. And let's face it, if you had to choose between keeping a term-unlimited job in Congress with very little scrutiny connected to it compared to the brutally competitive and scrutinized race for and job in the White House every four years, a lot of people would choose the cozy "door no. 1" on Capitol Hill.

"Trump's positives and negatives from the "Duel in the Desert" do provide the Republican Party with some very important guidelines on how to survive post-election 2016."

But playing it safe like that is poison for the Republican Party brand nationally, and that's why an outsider like Trump so easily won the nomination against 16 establishment candidates all tainted with that stigma of ineffectiveness combined with a lack of a sense of urgency. Trump conveyed that sense of urgency last night in a way Mitt Romney or John McCain never did in their presidential debates. The GOP needs to learn from that.

Defiance against the news media and an image of nonchalant immunity to its usual attacks against Republicans is another quality of Trump's the GOP needs to learn. The biggest reason Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and then-House Speaker John Boehner preemptively promised not to shut down the government in 2015 was because they feared the media backlash and the instant hit they might take in the polls like they did in 2013.

It didn't seem to dawn on them that the "hit" from the 2013 shutdown didn't stop them from getting a crushing 2014 midterm election win along with regained control of the Senate. To use a Trump-like terminology, this is the way "losers think." And even if you think the news media is right to go after the Congressional Republicans, what does it say about those Republicans when they're more afraid of the press than their own core voters? Trump's devil-may-care attitude in the face of the media storm against him is the only way for the GOP to win. Otherwise, the Republicans look too weak to vote for even if you do agree with them.

But unlike Trump, the GOP going forward must channel that anger into a set of more focused goals and a more articulate message. Trump does relatively well when he goes on about open borders, terrorism, lost manufacturing jobs, and Obamacare. But he so often misuses the same fiery spirit wasting his time defending his insults for the former Miss Universe or the Muslim, Gold Star father who spoke at the Democratic National Convention. When he makes his message more about him than the people he supposedly wants to represent, which he does often, it hurts him almost irreparably.

And it also hurts him when he's simply not quick or sharp enough to present a clear statement, leaving the news media plenty of room to twist his words to the worst effect and also letting his political opponents off the hook. This happened several times Wednesday night when he failed to immediately call Clinton on her supposed opposition to Citizens United when she is actually one of the top recipients of all time of Citizens United-fueled campaign cash.

And it's happened every time Trump has made it sound like he won't accept the election's results in any case unless he wins. That's as opposed to simply warning against voter fraud. It's a classic misfire that makes what could be a fact-based passionate message into what sounds like a random conspiracy theory.

Trump does this a lot, and even a newly impassioned GOP with fiery candidates couldn't make a winner out of that turkey. Trump has been smart enough to abandon the "birther" movement against President Obama, but he's held on to some other clunkers for too long. He simply does not seem "fixable" in that sense, but plenty of future Republican candidates could be.

Unless the Republicans get honest with themselves about what Trump's successes and failures in the primaries and the debates have proved about their party, the GOP could indeed fade away in the coming years. In its place would be a party or a movement that speaks more directly to the disaffected in America while still not sounding too crazy to those millions of people who may be less angry but still want change.


Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.