Last week, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) made clear how unimpressed he is with Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump. The candidate is firing up “the crazies,” McCain said, adding that Trump has “galvanized” a “very extreme element” within the Republican Party.
As msnbc’s Benjy Sarlin reported over the weekend, Trump fired back during an appearance at a major GOP event in Iowa, which in turn may have put his newfound position as a Republican leader in jeopardy,
“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said during an onstage Q&A at the conservative Family Leadership Summit, an event that features a number of Republican presidential contenders. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, okay?”Perhaps realizing he had gone too far – even for him – Trump followed up by saying “perhaps he’s a war hero” before repeating his criticism of McCain’s academic record in the U.S. Naval Academy over five decades ago.
There are many in the GOP who’ve been eager to condemn Trump, but who’ve hesitated, unwilling to risk alienating the candidate’s nativist supporters. But Trump’s ugly rhetoric about McCain’s military service offered Republicans an excuse to go after the candidate with a vengeance.
Party officials and candidates quickly – and at times, ferociously – denounced Trump and his line of attack. Even the Republican National Committee, which has treated Trump’s racist incidents with kid gloves, said in an official statement, “There is no place in our party or our country for comments that disparage those who have served honorably.”
For his part, Trump, who received multiple deferments to avoid serving in Vietnam – he cited a foot injury, though he doesn’t remember which foot – talked to ABC’s Martha Raddatz yesterday and said he doesn’t owe McCain an apology “at all.” He struck a similar tone in a new USA Today op-ed.
For a variety of pundits, this effectively marked the end of Trump’s campaign – it was the ultimate flame out, the argument goes, for a narcissistic candidate who simply can’t control his impulses.
And those assumptions may very well prove to be true, but I wouldn’t bet on it just yet.
Keep in mind, right-wing hostility towards McCain is quite common, despite his conservative voting record, so Trump’s classless rhetoric may not necessarily be a deal-breaker with the GOP base. Indeed, at the Iowa event, after Trump made his remarks, he left the stage to a standing ovation – if the party activists in attendance were offended by what they heard, they didn’t show it.
We’ll have to wait for the next round of polling, but it’s hardly a foregone conclusion that Trump has burst his own balloon.
As for the larger context, I remain eager to hear Republicans explain the selectivity of their outrage. When Donald Trump relies on racism to advance his ambitions, GOP officials tolerate his antics, but when Trump criticizes John McCain, that’s a bridge too far? By what standard is that acceptable?
For that matter, if Republican leaders want to argue that attacks on Americans’ military service are simply beyond the pale, perhaps party officials can take this opportunity to apologize to John Kerry, who was smeared by Swiftboat lies in the 2004 cycle – lies that were celebrated at the time by 2016 candidates like Jeb Bush and Rick Perry – and who saw the spectacle at the Republican National Convention of party activists mocking Purple Hearts. While they’re it, Republicans can express some regret for related smears directed at former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.).
And let’s also recall the time Rush Limbaugh said that any U.S. serviceman or woman who supported ending the war in Iraq is a “phony soldier” – a smear that did literally nothing to undermine Limbaugh’s standing as one of the most powerful voices in Republican politics.
If the rule is that Democratic veterans should expect to have their service and their patriotism questioned, while Republican veterans must be celebrated without question, GOP leaders should come right out and say so. If the RNC is right, and there is “no place in our party or our country for comments that disparage those who have served honorably,” can Republicans explain why this principle took root just 48 hours ago?
Postscript: Observers with good memories may recall that in 2008, Wesley Clark – an Obama campaign surrogate at the time – said on a Sunday show about McCain, “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.” It is, to my mind, the only other recent example of anyone challenging McCain’s service.
But to equate the Clark and Trump examples is a mistake. For one thing, in context, Clark’s comments weren’t nearly as offensive. For another, Clark apologized quickly, while Trump did the opposite. And finally, Clark was immediately dropped as an Obama surrogate and his career in Democratic politics never recovered. Trump, on other hand, remains a leading Republican presidential candidate as of this morning.