There are two ways to look at Donald Trump's decision to withhold himself from the last debate of Republican candidates before the Iowa caucuses:
▪ A girl made him cry. The Donald took his ball and went home because Fox wouldn't remove Megyn Kelly as a moderator and he was afraid of being on the losing end of another clash with her.
That's politically incorrect to say, but then again Trump has built his campaign on being politically incorrect.
▪ He stood up to the media, the only group less admired than used car salesmen, especially among Trump voters.
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I'm going with the first hypothesis. A good dealmaker – never mind the hugest, best dealmaker in the world – doesn't walk away from the table. If he's bluffing for advantage, that's one thing. But there's no advantage to gain here.
The great negotiator is reduced to negotiating with himself. And he has escalated the dispute: He reportedly won't talk to Fox President Roger Ailes, only to his boss, Rupert Murdoch.
At this point in the brawl, it's hard to pick sides between Trump and Ailes. Trump has an uncanny knack for touching on his opponents' weaknesses, like the brother who knows exactly where to poke a bruise. But not here. Ailes exposed Trump's temper tantrum over Kelly to a global audience with a killer statement.
"We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president – a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings."
Trump tried to counter the perception that he lacks the gravitas to be president. But a Twitter post on Wednesday in which he congratulated himself for his maturity and restraint proved just the opposite: "I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct. Instead I will only call her a lightweight reporter!"
Ailes pointed out Trump's ultimate weakness: Throw a fit of petulance like this with a world leader, it's an international incident. What's more, you can't fire presidents of other countries.
Does anyone believe that if Trump holds his breath and turns blue when dealing with Vladimir Putin, his good friend whom he passed in the green room at CBS, the U.S. will come out a winner? What if he didn't like Putin's No. 2, the shape of the table, the blinis or if Putin kept him waiting?
Trump poses as a bigger man than Putin or Megyn Kelly. He turns out to be smaller and pettier than both.
No candidate is bigger than Trump at the moment, but debates are. They're set in stone by the parties and the networks. The sans-Trump forum Thursday may prove to be the opening the mainstream Republican candidates couldn't create for themselves, despite all the fighting and the millions spent by PACs. An empty podium gives them a chance to explain themselves. Imagine that: better informed voters thanks to Trump.
Sure there's the chance that standing up to the hated media will help Trump. But there's a larger truth at hand. You don't bully with impunity; you don't kill the party because someone you don't like is coming; you don't try to ruin the event for everyone else by removing your "star" presence.
He will have his own event, but the show will go on. There will be a Clint Eastwood empty chair. It will give some viewers pause: Who is going to risk voting for that?
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.