— Richard Yeselson (@yeselson) March 8, 2016
As previously noted, the pledge to support the party’s nominee forced upon Republican candidates, specifically as a condition of participation in the debates last year, was always dubious, even before the anti-Trump campaign began to point to conditions always implicit in any superficially unconditional commitment.
At the Republican debate in Detroit on March 3rd, the last question posed by moderator Brent Baier in effect required the candidates to judge whether the apocalyptic moment had passed:
Gentlemen, this is the last question of the night. It has been a long time since our first debate, seven months ago in Cleveland. A lot has transpired since then, obviously, including an RNC pledge that all of you signed agreeing to support the party’s nominee and not to launch an independent run. Tonight, in 30 seconds, can you definitively say you will support the Republican nominee, even if that nominee is Donald J. Trump?
Left-liberal commentators have made troll-sport out of the inability especially of #NeverTrump-ist Marco Rubio to follow the slogan or hashtag to what would seem to be its logical conclusion, although what precisely that conclusion would be remains unclear. Would a mere open disavowal of the prior pledge be sufficient, or must a true Trump opponent promise to join a conspiracy to assassinate?
Of the four replies (an adjusted version of the same question was also put to Trump), the one from Ted Cruz struck me at the time as the most interesting:
BAIER: Senator Cruz, yes or no, you will support Donald Trump is he’s the nominee?
CRUZ: Yes, because I gave my word that I would. And what I have endeavored to do every day in the Senate is do what I said I would do.
I translated the statement, delivered in somber tones and with initially downcast demeanor, as “Yes… tragically.”
More to the political point, or points, none of the “Three yes’s of Detroit,” and least of all Cruz’s, amounted to a personal endorsement of Donald J. Trump, or even a promise to vote for him. It is hard to imagine that a nominee Trump would be inviting these three wise yes-men out on the stump with him in the Fall – though it remains at least conceivable that Governor Kasich, who has not yet (to my knowledge) received an insulting nickname from Trump and has not resoundingly and repeatedly denied Trump’s fitness for the office of president, might accept an invitation to be Trump’s running mate. No one expects, say, “weak” Jeb Bush, Trump’s whipping boy in debate after debate, to offer active support for Donald Trump, and neither has Bush been asked to retract his own pledge.
Within the immediate debate context, the re-affirmations seemed to mean that the men did not treat a candidate’s declarations of intention to commit high crimes and misdemeanors as prima facie disqualifying. What confirmation of “support” seems to mean otherwise is at most that the three men might, say, join the nominee on stage for a Republican Convention finale, and that, if anyone bothered to ask them for an opinion on the race thereafter, they would at least decline to advocate for Trump’s opponent or opponents. Honor might dictate further that they would refuse to host or participate in negotiations aimed to undermine nominee Trump.
In other words, the pledge of support is a pledge not to oppose directly, and nothing else: It does not address the more fundamental problem, which is that forcing such a pledge on candidates was an error of moral and political imagination, in keeping with the general hollowing out of the Republican Party on the national level, or its conversion over the course of generations from true political party into a candidate promotion apparatus. In this connection, some states attach a further commitment to support the principles of the Republican Party as a requirement for placement on primary ballots. The coercion exercised by the RNC against its own candidates, at the time mainly out of fear that Trump would bolt the party or hold its fortunes hostage, happens to put the question of what Republican Party principles could possibly be, yet such language at least provides and points to a political and ethical out, a kind of comprehensive morals clause, by which a candidate might argue, for instance, that, since fomenting violence at one’s own political rallies violates the principles of republican governance, support for Mr. Trump had become impossible.
The effective conclusion, though one difficult to articulate, is that, in the event that the party does nominate Trump, anyone whose judgment was poor enough to have offered an unconditional commitment to that same party will have already disqualified himself as an arbiter of political things. He or she will not be capable of giving meaningful and acceptable support to Trump or anyone else: To support Caesar was to oppose the Roman Republic, so impossible for a republican. In that specific sense, the nomination of Trump will itself retroactively nullify the pledge: With the meaning and true possession of the Republican Party radically in doubt, the meaning of any pledge of support from within it will likewise be put radically in doubt. The nominal nominee of the nominal Republican Party would be the actual nominee of an actually different Republican Party, or of a Republican Party revealed never to have actually been a party.
An argument could be developed as to how any of the candidates missed a chance to out-Trump Trump and set himself apart from the others. He might have taken over the national political spotlight, rallying the panicky troops to himself: “Who loves the party, let him follow me!” Alternatively, any of the men, but especially the “choke artist” or the “liar,” might have gone “meta” more directly: “After all the things I’ve said about Mr. Trump, and that Mr. Trump has said about me as about many of my colleagues and friends throughout the Republican Party and conservative movement, what possible meaning could my so-called ‘support’ for him have – if the disaster of his nomination, God forbid, comes to pass?” Yet forgiving a candidate for not having tried to explain all of the above in 30 seconds, on national TV, should not be too hard.