After weeks of pent up Republican criticism of Donald Trump, the dam finally burst Saturday. Once Trump's rivals started condemning him for insulting a party elder and, less directly, any American captured or killed in combat, it began to feel safer to attack him on a wide variety of fronts.
That's all to the good. But some Republicans are taking things a step further and hoping Trump will be excluded from the debates unless he apologizes, which he rarely does. If, as the Republican National Committee says, there "is no place in our party or our country" for Trump's comments, how can there be any place for Trump on the debate stage?
Yes, Trump's presence on that stage has the potential to tarnish the entire GOP brand. He will be seen among the top ten of the Republican field, including the eventual nominee. He is sure to be featured in ads attacking Republican candidates in the fall of 2016.
Barring Trump from the debates would still do more harm than good. First, it would appear to validate the narrative he is pushing to conservatives so disaffected with the party leadership that they are backing a Hillary Clinton donor who favored single-payer healthcare: the fix is in, the Republican establishment will pick the nominee rather than grassroots conservatives. Such speculation is already rife.
Fueling Trump's martyrdom complex is dangerous enough. When the base already feels disrespected, bolstering the perception that the party bosses are more important than the rank-and-file voters is playing with fire. And they would have a point: What legitimacy would the debate criteria have when candidates who meet them and are polling near the top of the field can be denied their spot?
Where would disenchanted voters go in 2016? Kicking Trump out of the debates would increase the chances that he runs as an independent or third-party candidate. This would mitigate his impact on the Republican brand, but also siphon potentially millions of votes away from the party's presidential nominee and make it that much more difficult to beat Hillary Clinton.
Gary Johnson wasn't even polling well enough to qualify for most of the debates in 2012, yet keeping him out still had the effect of pushing the former two-term governor of New Mexico into the Libertarian Party. Johnson won more than 1 million votes that November and he is nowhere nearly as famous as Trump.
Ross Perot wasn't as famous Trump either, until he launched his 1992 presidential campaign. Like Trump, he had the resources to compete without the party system. Perot also dropped out of the race, making outlandish charges about President Bush planning to disrupt his daughter's wedding. He still won nearly 19 percent of the vote when he re-entered the campaign that fall.
Finally, the benefit of Trump-free debates to the party's image can be overstated. People justifiably ask why Trump has only crossed the line now and not with any of his other numerous crass and controversial statements. Why didn't his comments about Mexicans or his never-recanted birtherism disqualify him? The implication will be that Republicans are fine with racism and bizarre conspiracy theories, or at least unwilling to alienate voters who are.
A counterargument to most of the above is that Trump won't matter if Republicans nominate a real conservative, especially if the nominee is an otherwise attractive and capable candidate. Perhaps. Third-party campaigns are as likely to fizzle as effect the outcome of the election.
Yet this objection suggests that the best solution to Trump isn't changing the debate rules at the last minute, but trusting the voters to do the right thing. Steve Deace, the Iowa conservative radio talk show host who was among the first to predict the Trump boom, has already detected that the billionaire went too far for conservative activists.
Maybe now there can be a real discussion about Trump's record, a past that includes donations to Democratic candidates and a slew of liberal policy positions. Won't the sight of a united Republican field, from Jeb Bush to Ben Carson and Rand Paul to Lindsey Graham, holding Trump accountable also say something about the party's brand identity? It's an argument conservative candidates ought to feel confident about winning, either in the media or on the debate stage.