Those who cover and discuss politics for a living tend to exhibit a bias in favor of the moment; overemphasizing the impact of non-events and the influence of figures who are, in retrospect, forgettable. Presidential campaigns, in particular, are prisoners to the news cycle. For the most part, particularly in the summer of an off-year, the daily machinations and intrigues on the campaign trail do not matter. Those all-consuming controversies that seem so urgent are, in fact, passing and trivial. Without overstating the case, Saturday July 18 may be remembered as an exception to that rule. It was a remarkably consequential weekend on the campaign trail, and its effects on both the Republican and Democratic Parties may not long be forgotten.
In the coming days, a deservedly significant amount of energy will be spent analyzing and dissecting the political impact of Donald Trump’s crass and irresponsible comments about Senator John McCain. You’ve probably already heard the most insulting quips: “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said when asked about McCain’s suggestion that Trump’s candidacy has made the “crazies” emerge from the woodwork. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
The comment did not sit well with the audience of conservatives in Ames, Iowa. While the vanity and simple-mindedness of Trump’s statements have been the subject of extensive deliberation, what has gone largely unremarked upon is the amateurish way in which he tried to clean them up.
The Weekly Standard’s Stephen F. Hayes grilled Trump over his impolitic comments about a man who spent years being tortured in a North Vietnamese prison camp. He recalled their interchange:
I asked Trump if he was blaming John McCain for his capture, as his comments implied. “I am saying John McCain has not done a good job,” Trump responded, dodging the question.
When I repeated the question, Trump said: “I am not blaming John McCain for his capture. If he gets captured, he gets captured.”
“Why would you say you like people who don’t get captured?”
Trump: “The people that don’t get captured I’m not supposed to like? I like the people who don’t get captured and I respect the people who do get captured.”
To his credit, Hayes refused to move politely on to a new topic. His doggedness exposed the fact that A) Trump understood that he had made an error simply by virtue of his refusal to repeat the incendiary comment about McCain’s service record and B) that he lacked the political skill to defuse the controversy. Rarely does an adept politician stumble into a minefield, and they are usually far more competent at controlling the damage when they do. Trump has been defanged; those Republicans in the 2016 field who were reluctant to be too critical for fear of alienating his supporters have shed that caution.
During Trump’s infamous remarks in Ames, the reality television star refused to rule out a third-party bid for the White House in 2016. That might be a remote possibility, but the Republican Party should be preparing for it today. The GOP cannot provide Trump a face-saving way out of the losing confrontation he has inaugurated, and the billionaire real estate developer may calculate that he has invested enough of his credibility and lost so much of his stature to this quixotic candidacy that it would make little sense to end it merely because he cannot secure the GOP nomination. But the GOP should welcome a long, slow-motion Sister Souljah moment in which the party and its reputable candidates denounce a figure that represents all the obnoxious elements of opportunistic populism. Polls indicate that most voters, including Hispanics, still believe Trump speaks for himself when he debases American political dialogue. Republicans would do well to cement that impression, continue to cast Trump as an opportunist and erstwhile liberal, and neuter him as a political force.
Fifteen-hundred miles away, on the other side of the aisle, another event with potentially far-reaching consequences was unfolding. At the annual Netroots Nation conference of progressives in Phoenix, Arizona, another candidate was challenged by the unattractive elements of his party’s fringe base voters.
On Saturday, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley were confronted by aggressive and unreasonable members of what the press has dubbed the “black lives matter” movement. Both candidates were rudely interrupted by those protestors who stormed the stage on which the candidates were seated, seized the microphone, and commandeered the event. But the most shocking episode to emerge from Phoenix involved a repudiation of the notion that all people of every racial background deserve to live.
When confronted by chants of “black lives matter” during his address to the conference, O’Malley replied: “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.” Contrary to press reports that suggested the crowd erupted in protest when O’Malley dared contend that “all lives matter,” video of the event clearly indicates it was his contention that “white lives matter” that proved truly unacceptable for the event attendees. For this perfectly reasonable contention, O’Malley was compelled by the unreasoning mob to apologize.
“I meant no disrespect,” O’Malley told the hosts of the web-based program, This Week in Blackness. “That was a mistake on my part and I meant no disrespect. I did not mean to be insensitive in any way or communicate that I did not understand the tremendous passion, commitment and feeling and depth of feeling that all of us should be attaching to this issue.”
The nation’s political press will no doubt devote far more attention to the Trump spectacle than a Democratic candidate’s apology for daring to contend that all lives have value. That will not reduce the impact of this moment. When a crowd of Democratic National Committee attendees erupted in a chorus of “boos” when the party platform was amended to add a reference to God and the city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the discomforting moment did not dominate the evening news but it was both powerful and consequential. Even today, that episode lives in infamy in the minds of voters. The press will not prompt Democrats to confront the excessive and irrational elements within their party. For Democrats as well as Republicans, they run the risk of allowing the nastier elements of their bases to come to typify both parties in the minds of unaffiliated voters. With the prodding of the press, however, only one party is busily confronting that condition.
The Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee will never be compelled by the press to weigh in on this matter. To ask Hillary Clinton to address this embarrassing debacle is to demand she sacrifice either some of her support among Democratic primary voters or the general electorate. As such, this moment and the ugly impulse it exposes will never be neutralized; it will fester, metastasize, and threaten to spread to healthier Democratic organs.
The third weekend in July of 2015 will soon be forgotten by voters and pundits alike, but the events that were set in motion this weekend will have lasting consequences. For the 2016 campaign and the trajectory of American politics, it was a significant weekend.