Donald Trump’s Muslim ban didn’t do it. Nor did his harassment of female journalists like Megyn Kelly. Marco Rubio calling Ted Cruz a liar to his face couldn’t break the spell, and neither could Cruz’s obvious attempt to suppress Ben Carson’s vote in the Iowa caucuses, to the benefit of his own campaign.
For nearly seven months, every Republican presidential candidate went along with the Republican National Committee’s insistence, painfully laid bare in a debate hand-raising session, that they pinkie swear their support for the Republican nominee for president, no matter who the final winner might be.
The loyalty pledge is just the sort of canned political nonsense that drives normal people crazy, but makes party bosses sleep better at night. “It doesn’t matter that Trump said he’d like to punch a voter in the face,” Reince Preibus could tell himself. “We’ll all be united in the end.”
But in trying to wrest control of the presidential nominating process, the RNC unwittingly lost control instead. With every candidate pledged to support him if he won, Trump could do, say, yell or skywrite anything he wanted without risking the chance that the party wouldn’t back him once the dust settled. Why not call Poor Jeb a momma’s boy? He’d be a Trump guy no matter what. That beautiful wall? Keep talking about it. All 16 other candidates said they’d endorse the winner and his ideas, no matter how dangerous or wrong-headed the ideas might seem to them.
The party pledge also played into the frustrations of disenchanted voters already fed up with Washington, where politicians seemed to listen more to lobbyists and party leaders than the people who elected them in the first place. For every Republican leader who came out to call Donald Trump’s language un-American or un-conservative, not a single one said any offense was bad enough to disqualify Trump from taking over the White House. Whose side were they on, a voter might ask?
And as a matter of character, the pledge only seemed to reinforce Trump’s caricatures of his opponents. Did anything make Jeb Bush look more “low energy” than having Donald Trump hammer him during the day, only for Poor Jeb to promise in debates to support Trump as the nominee? Could “Little Marco” have looked littler than the times he warned his rallies that Trump would fundamentally make the country less safe, but then stuck by this pledge to support the guy if he won enough delegates before July?
Pledges of fidelity are fine for sororities and Boy Scouts, mostly because the stakes are so low. But with the future of the country on the line, voters would be justified in asking where a person’s priorities lie if their highest loyalty in the election is with their party alone.
On Tuesday night at the CNN town hall, Donald Trump did his party a favor by blowing up the entire charade. He said he didn’t feel he’d been treated well by the party, which has multiple efforts underway to keep him from the nomination, and therefore didn’t think the whole loyalty pledge was working for him anymore. With Trump out, Kasich could finally say that he, too, would have to see who the nominee is before he could promise to be 100 percent on board.
Only Cruz stopped short of ditching the pledge, although he did say he doesn’t make a habit out of supporting people who attack his wife and family. Let’s hope not.
So much of what voters are rebelling against this year seems to be false promises and misplaced loyalties of the past, so last night’s truth session felt like an overdue step in the right direction. Instead of continuing on with their group suicide pact, the candidates finally spoke their truth in words voters can finally understand: No, I really don’t like the guy and no, I’m not going to promise to support him in November if I think it’s bad for the country. Those brief moments of honesty, now required by voters who won’t settle for less, might be the silver lining of this ugly primary process.
The GOP loyalty pledge can now join the 60-second ad, ethanol subsidies, the Iowa straw poll and politicians calling their opponents “my opponent” on the list of antiquated fakeries that might have finally met their doom in 2016. Rest in peace, ridiculous gimmicks, rest in peace. We won’t miss you when you’re gone.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for the Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill Bureau Chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane. Follow her @1PatriciaMurphy
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