Here we are again.
After the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, decided that a speech given by the father of fallen soldier Capt. Humayun Khan amounted to a "vicious" attack, and after Trump described the delivery of this speech as possible evidence of the oppression of Muslim women; after a surrogate claimed that Khan's father is an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood (an Islamist political and social movement); and after Trump claimed that the dispute was not about the Khans but "radical Islam," Trump got the equivalent of a tsk-tsk from many a Republican official.
That's an unseemly attack on a Gold Star family, more than a few said. But my support for the Republican nominee — well, that's unwavering, they seemed to also say.
This is a cycle, by now familiar. Very few Republicans stand to emerge entirely unscathed. But it's starting to look like at least one 2020 contender may emerge ahead: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).
Here's how the Trump controversy cycle plays out.
First, Trump says something — sometimes by his own initiative, sometimes in what he considers necessary pushback — that heretofore has been considered out of bounds, an endorsement of some form of bigotry or an idea that is anti-democratic. Then, after a great and collective clutching of pearls, Trump and his surrogates defend those comments, sometimes expand on them.
Finally, Republican party officials and elected office-holders indicate that while the comments were out of bounds and not representative of the party, they will, however, support Trump, the party's presidential nominee.
It happened after Trump's announcement speech declaring undocumented Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals who are part of a larger Mexican government conspiracy to rid that country of its dregs. It happened after Trump declared Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) damaged and less than heroic goods because he spent time as a prisoner of war.
It happened when Trump implied that a reporter questioned him pointedly during a debate due to hormonal and demeanor fluctuations caused by that reporter's menstrual cycle. It happened when Trump called for a temporary ban on all Muslim immigration (the impetus for Khan's speech) and when Trump dragged his feet in disavowing the support of one of the KKK's most well-known members, now a Senate candidate who has said he plans to ride Trump's political wave. It happened when Trump said a federal judge of Mexican American origin could not do his job due to his heritage.
After each of those incidents, prominent Republicans stepped forward to express their disappointment but continued support. Sometimes that support was directed at a Republican nominee they did not mention by name but whom they committed to nonetheless. Some declined to show up to the party's convention but have made no public comments about their voting plans. One tried to split the difference and "attended" the convention via videotaped address.
Many, many Republicans have condemned Trump's many comments but also remained steadfast in their presidential endorsement, including McCain. McCain's decision is noteworthy because he is a former POW and the father of young men who have served in this country's wars. He issued a statement with a searing rebuke of Trump's attack on the Khans on Monday. And he is a Republican in the middle of a heck of a reelection fight. Is that why his Trump presidential endorsement still stands?
If so, McCain is not alone. Few prominent Republicans have gone as far as Cruz and showed up at the GOP convention and said afterward in a televised speech that he could not support Trump's presidential bid. Cruz pretty much stands alone as a Republican who came to Cleveland, and within the same week said that the nominee's regular turn to personal and group aspersions, references to conspiracy theories and actual untrue non-facts make Trump a man whom he cannot and will not endorse or defend.
Republican party operatives and officials live in a no-doubt difficult moment. With each passing day of the still-young general election season, they face moments in which they must choose between party and principles. Some may be genuinely troubled but have kept silent out of the hope and belief that a President Trump would nominate conservative Supreme Court justices who will shape the country for the next 30 or more years. Some have said little or tried to condemn the comments without condemning Trump's candidacy in hopes that Republicans and swing voters will still show up and vote for or against Trump, but certainly for all the Republicans further down the ballot. Some might be genuinely appalled by the Democratic candidate.
Still, a look just at the ranks of Trump's one-time competition in the 2016 Republican primary race reveals this: Cruz stands almost alone as a once and future presidential hopeful in his clear rejection of Trump. And it's a rejection that came just before Trump laid into Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of a solider killed in action, for behavior beyond the pale of acceptable politics.
Yes, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) declined to attend the party's July convention, even though the event was held in his state. He has said he is unlikely to vote for Trump. And sure, former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) did not attend said convention and has said that he will not vote for Trump, and issued a tweet describing Trump's statements about the Khans as "incredibly disrespectful." Neither of them ventured onto the convention floor.
Meanwhile, Ben Carson has described Trump as a candidate he supports but who needs to work on his outreach to minority voters. Carson went to the convention and joined New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) in delivering a speech condemning Trump's rival, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, in terms the two men seemed to hope would remain with voters longer than anything Trump has said. According to Carson, Clinton may have a close personal relationship with Lucifer. And according to Christie, she is guilty of many crimes and near-crimes.
Sen. Lindsey Graham also stayed away from the convention and has said he won't vote for Trump or Clinton — but seems unlikely to mount a repeat presidential bid. Former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee have said they will back Trump, and have been critical of Republicans who won't.
Gov. Rick Perry is in this camp, too, despite having been one of the first 2016 candidates to describe Trump and his commentary as not befitting a president.
That's not exactly a collective profile in 2016 candidate courage.
Beyond those who ran for president this year, there are possible 2020 contenders, such as House Majority Leader Paul D. Ryan, who has often led the "Trump does not speak for our party" clean-up crew. He has condemned Trump's comments on several occasions, then followed with general expressions of support for the Republican nominee. A number of current and former members of Congress, party operatives and advisers have done basically the same. The Atlantic.com made a list.
But the long lens of history delivers pictures far different from those visible in this moment. In them, party concerns and long-term career goals rarely generate the kind of flattering portraits that conflicts shaped by principle tend to do.
Translation: When books about the 2016 race are written, Cruz — not Ryan or Sen. Marco Rubio — is shaping up as the one most likely to emerge looking like something of the hero. The man many a GOP critic described as a self-serving malcontent last month may be just that. But with time and space, Cruz won't just be a man who delivered a speech that put him in the camp of those who would not back Trump. He will be the man who showed up in Cleveland and stood his ground in front of Trump himself. This week, there may be a few fellow Republicans wishing they'd done the same.