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2016 politics: The need for unwelcome intrusions

No matter how much we like to feel we are spontaneous, flexible and youthful, we have to face it: change is hard.

This is as true for politicians as it is for the rest of us. That is why campaigns often feel preordained. The advertising is parsed and targeted. The speeches are predigested and pat. The candidates themselves seldom veer from poll-tested messages.

And then they freak out when the unexpected occurs. Republicans and Democrats have become freak-out response experts this week.

On the GOP side, born showman Donald Trump has capitalized on the shock to the system that kicks in when things do not go according to plan. Attack him, and he will attack back. Claim a money advantage, and he will reach into his own deep pockets (or promise to.)

And never, ever apologize.

The other candidates were frozen in place for a while as he went on the attack on one, and then the others. They lurched into action with varying degrees of success.

Ted Cruz chose the hold-one’s-enemy closer approach, scurrying to New York to have his picture taken with Trump.

Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham — each fighting for the visibility needed to qualify for the first GOP presidential debate next month — went on the attack.

“Let no one be mistaken,” Perry said in a speech he delivered — for maximum impact in Washington. “Donald Trump’s candidacy is a cancer on conservatism and it must be clearly diagnosed, excised, and discarded.”

Graham, whose presidential campaign efforts had also been all but wiped out by Trump-mania, resorted to web humor. One day after he called Trump a “jackass” on “CBS This Morning,” and Trump responded by reading Graham’s cell phone number out loud during a televised rally, the South Carolina Senator posted this video.

What Perry, Cruz and Graham all get is one of the truisms of playground politics: if you can’t beat them at dodge ball, join the fray.

On the Democratic side of the 2016 ledger, candidates scrambled to secure a fraying flank after both Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley were effectively shouted down at a liberal conference.

Both were caught by surprise at Netroots Nation, where each had reasonably expected a warm embrace, by Black Lives Matter advocates urging them to speak more plainly about race and police violence.

Given the past year’s frictions in communities across the country, perhaps this protest should have come as no surprise. But Sanders, who once upon a time endorsed Jesse Jackson for president, was offended enough to threaten to leave the stage.

And O’Malley tried to mollify the protesters by saying, “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.” He said later he was unaware that this response has been widely embraced by people seeking to change the topic from the incendiary topic of racism.

Both men tried to mend fences later. And Hillary Clinton, who had skipped the Netroots conference entirely (after being jeered there in 2007 for a different reason), spied an opening. First on Facebook and then in a speech a few days after the Netroots fiasco, she declared, “It is essential we all stand up and say loudly and clearly, yes black lives matter.”

These may seem like small bumps in what is sure to be a long and winding road, and they probably are. But the way candidates handle distraction can be revealing. Are they light on their feet? Can they see around corners?

For voters, these intrusions should be seen as welcome. Any presidential hopeful has to be aware that no path is smooth; no ambition easily attained.

If you can’t figure out how to handle a heckler — either from the audience or from within your own party — it’s a good bet that life will only become more complicated after Inauguration Day.

Here’s to more, not less, distraction.

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