It was only a matter of time before Donald Trump crossed the kind of line he did on Saturday, when he questioned the heroism of Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam War POW. The question now is whether Candidate Trump is immune from the laws of political gravity or soon will be isolated and regarded as an object of scorn or curiosity rather than of presidential seriousness.
Since announcing his candidacy last month, Trump has enjoyed a swift rise, vaulting into the lead in some national and state polls in the crowded contest for the Republican nomination. His sharp attacks on illegal immigrants from Mexico and his flamboyant style struck a nerve with voters who are angry with Washington and with political double talk.
Trump has dominated coverage of the race with nonstop interviews and over-the-top comments. He has proved to be a skilled showman — a talent honed on reality TV — who is able to command attention with his combative verbal style.
But there is more to becoming president than what Trump has displayed so far, and many Republicans said Sunday that they think his attack on McCain (R-Ariz.) marks a turning point for Trump the politician.
Few would offer their views for the record, owing to their positions working for other candidates or a desire not to put themselves into direct conflict with Trump. One described Trump’s attack on McCain as “lethal.” Another said he expects “a complete cratering” of Trump’s support. Still another predicted that Trump would become “a niche candidate” and a sideshow to the main event.
But others are less confident that Trump’s candidacy will take a nose dive, highlighting the combination of hope, fear and uncertainty that has gripped the party since Trump decided to run.
Phil Musser, a GOP strategist unaffiliated with a campaign, said anyone who claims to know what the next turn is for Trump is only guessing. “This guy has tapped into a very virulent strain of the anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party,” he said, adding that he finds Trump’s comments personally offensive. “If he’s got a message that works for 15 percent of the people in the first five states,” Musser said, “he’s a factor, and he’s a factor with delegates.”
Trump has benefited from being cast as a not-quite-serious presidential candidate, which has allowed him to carry on as he has. His Republican rivals have been tentative in attacking him for describing illegal immigrants from Mexico as “rapists” and drug dealers, hoping he will collapse under his own weight and not wanting to get into a head-to-head scrap. The media, for all the coverage and often critical commentary given to Trump, have not subjected him to the kind of scrutiny that often goes with being atop the polls.
But every candidate who becomes a serious contender for the presidency eventually has to cross a threshold of acceptability with the voters. That is measured not only in where candidates stand on issues or how authentic they seem, but whether voters conclude they have the temperament, character and judgment to sit in the Oval Office.
That day of reckoning was always coming for Trump if he remained in the thick of the nomination contest, but his remarks on Saturday may have accelerated it. “The fact that he has no filter is what some voters find appealing, but it’s that lack of a filter that could doom his presidential campaign,” said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse, who is working for the super PAC affiliated with former Florida governor Jeb Bush but offered his comments only on behalf of himself.
Trump’s candidacy for the GOP nomination is a knot of contradictions. He disparages the Affordable Care Act but has called for a universal national health-care program. He calls himself pro-life after earlier saying he was pro-choice. He wants to expand Social Security benefits. He has repeatedly mocked his opponents in the most personal ways. Could someone like that unite the Republican Party or the country?
Such questions have been avoided, along with those of temperament and judgment. What happened Saturday could give license to his rivals and his critics to subject his candidacy — what he says and how he says it, where he stands vs. where he once stood — to the kind of scrutiny he has largely escaped.
Trump gave no indication Sunday that he had been chastened by the latest controversy or that he was ready to tone it down, as Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus asked him to do.
On ABC’s “This Week,” correspondent Martha Raddatz asked Trump whether he owed McCain an apology. “No, not at all,” he replied. He repeatedly accused McCain — who still bears the physical scars from the torture he was subjected to during more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp — of having “done nothing” for veterans.
When Raddatz confronted him with statements of condemnations by leaders of veterans groups, Trump said, “Well, maybe they don’t speak to the same vets that I speak to.” He filibustered throughout in the face of persistent questioning.
Raddatz asked whether, as president, Trump would continue to label an opponent as a “loser” or “dummy,” as he has done as a candidate. “Look, when people attack me, I let them have it back,” he said. “You say physical appearance. You know . . . people are constantly attacking my hair. I don’t see you coming to my defense.” Then he again called McCain “a dummy.”
If Republicans — many privately and some publicly — agreed that Trump has entered a new and more challenging phase of his candidacy, they differed on what the right strategy should be for those who feel he is a threat to the party’s hopes of winning the 2016 election.
Steve Schmidt, who was senior adviser to McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign, says Trump’s GOP rivals and others in the party must step up and confront him. “What he represents has to be taken seriously. It has to be confronted seriously,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s not just a cancer on the Republican Party and the conservative movement. It’s a cancer on our politics as a whole. . . . My personal view is that it ought to trigger a fight for the soul and heart of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.”
Another prominent GOP strategist, speaking anonymously to be candid, counseled a more nuanced approach. Candidates should prosecute the case against Trump, this strategist said. “But they have to do that with a certain amount of respect, with disappointment in their voice, and not go over the top.”
Trump’s harshest critic among his fellow Republican candidates has been former Texas governor Rick Perry. Even before Saturday’s controversy, Perry had aggressively criticized Trump for his comments on immigration. Now, after the attack on McCain, he says the businessman should get out of the race.
That’s unlikely right now, and it still would leave Trump free to mount an independent candidacy next year. Perry’s motivation may spring in part from his desire to raise his own profile in the hope of qualifying for the first GOP debate, which will take place Aug. 6 in Cleveland.
That debate promises to be dominated by the issue of Trump, and every candidate on that stage will have to weigh the political consequences of challenging him directly. Whether Trump will begin to weigh the consequences of his actions is another question. So far, there’s no indication of a change of heart. But for the candidate, the stakes have gotten noticeably higher after what he did Saturday.