GOP's Loyalty Oaths Now Null and Void

APPLETON, WI - MARCH 30:  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guests during a campaign rally at the Radi
APPLETON, WI - MARCH 30: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guests during a campaign rally at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel on March 30, 2016 in Appleton, Wisconsin. Wisconsin voters go to the polls for the state's primary on April 5. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Anderson Cooper just made some news, by asking all three Republican candidates for president whether they'd honor their previous pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee -- no matter who won. None of the three candidates now say they'll honor their loyalty pledge, although two of them tried to weasel out of even giving a straight answer. Personally, I can't decide which is more bizarre, the whole spectacle of a party loyalty oath in the first place, or the news that all three Republicans seem to have set a new world speed record by breaking a big campaign promise -- not after getting elected, and not while pivoting to the middle after becoming the nominee, but before the primary season is even over.

The oath, of course, was nothing more than a gimmick in the first place, directed at one candidate alone. All the Republican National Committee really wanted was a signature on the following: "I, Donald Trump, after my inevitable flame-out on the campaign trail, pledge not to attempt a third-party run and instead will support the eventual Republican nominee, which (of course) will not be me." That was deemed too personal, so they made all their candidates sign a generic pledge not to do so, to preserve the appearance of fairness.

Trump was (obviously) never supposed to win. Now that he's within reach of the nomination, the loyalty oath is coming back to bite the establishment Republicans in a big way. Now they've all pledged to remain loyal to Trump -- which was definitely not the way it was all supposed to work out.

Last night, this pledge was pronounced null and void, even though a few short weeks ago (in their last debate) all three candidates swore they'd stick to their pledges. Trump now says he doesn't consider himself bound by it any more, because the party has been "unfair" to him. He's got a point -- when was the last time we've seen a major party fervently doing everything they possibly can to deny their nomination to the guy who's getting the most votes? Similar things have happened before, but not in such blatant fashion, and not very recently. At least Trump honestly answered the question, clearly stating that he no longer was going to honor his pledge. Ted Cruz and John Kasich both tried to weasel out of providing a clear answer, hoping that the voters would connect the dots while still preserving some shred of deniability. In other words, both Cruz and Kasich gave typical politician-speak answers. But neither one of them said anything like: "I made a solemn oath to support the Republican presidential candidate, and I am not going to break my word." Not even close.

What both of them did instead was to essentially stick their fingers in their ears and mutter: "Donald Trump is not going to be the Republican nominee," over and over again, in the hopes that repeating it enough times would somehow make it come true. Not too surprising, since this is the party that believes if the president just utters the words "radical Islamic terrorists" enough times, then they will all give up, go home, and stop fighting. Magical phrases are big in the GOP, it seems.

No matter how hard they wish, though, Donald Trump might well become the Republican nominee later this year. What's interesting about this development is that Cruz and Kasich might have opened the flood gates for the rest of the party to start taking a real stand against Trump. Cruz and Kasich (and Rubio, when he was still running) weren't the only ones to completely undercut all their badmouthing of Trump with: "...but, of course, I'll still support him if he's the GOP nominee." Lots of other prominent Republicans have gotten caught in this trap as well (most recently, Paul Ryan). They all provide a list of why Trump is so horrible and why he's unthinkable as president, and then they humbly end by stating they'll support him anyway, should he win the party's nomination.

But now that Cruz and Kasich have led the way, it'll be interesting to see whether other Republicans get on board or not. Because this might be the last chance they've got to stop Trump. And it's a lot easier to make the case against Trump when you are free to say: "I will not support Trump even if he becomes my party's nominee." If prominent members of Congress and the Republican establishment publicly rip up the concept of loyalty oaths by fully denouncing Trump, it might just be persuasive enough that the remaining primary voters deny Trump the nomination. It probably won't work (nothing else has, yet), but it'd have a better chance with strong denunciations of Trump, complete with clear refusals to back him even if he wins the nomination.

The Republicans are in a serious pickle, that much is for certain. I only see three probable outcomes, at this point. Trump could get the nomination and a large portion of Republican Party officials could do their best to ignore or disavow Trump, and even run campaigns (for the Senate and the House) which directly state that they don't support Trump. After Trump's inevitable defeat (this line of thinking goes), they could gather the scraps of the Republican Party, lick their wounds, and work hard to insure that their party is never hijacked in such a fashion ever again.

The second possible scenario is that a large portion of the Republican Party form their own third party, either by building one anew or trying to hijack one of the third parties which already exist (and already have ballot access in most states). They would choose some hapless candidate as a sacrificial lamb, who would go on to lose in a big way, but whose loss would also deny Trump the Oval Office. This would be a temporary hiatus from the Republican Party, and as in the first scenario, they'd all return to the GOP afterwards and try to figure out just what the heck happened to their party.

The third scenario starts the same as the second, but instead of eventually returning to the Republican Party after launching a third-party bid, the former Republicans would decide that building a permanent alternative is the way to go. Either the Republican Party would collapse afterwards (after Trump exits the stage, leaving it a hollowed-out shell), or the new third party would never gain traction and eventually all the Republicans would drift back to the wreckage of the Republican Party, post-Trump.

Of course, all three of these scenarios start with basic assumptions which might prove to be wrong. Trump might actually win not only the nomination but also the presidency. Or, perhaps, the Machiavellian plotting to deny Trump the GOP nomination will actually work, leaving Trump to be the one to explore a third-party option. It's impossible to say what the odds are right now for any of these, really.

But the whimpering death of the loyalty oaths certainly expands the range of possibilities, especially for Republican senators (and other GOP candidates) who are already very nervous about running with Donald Trump at the top of their ticket. If Cruz and Kasich can break their pledge (one that was physically signed, on paper), then all the other Republicans will be free to follow suit, since they never even had to swear such an explicit loyalty oath to the party in the first place. We will all see the spectacle of Republicans running for office while also running as hard as they can against their own party's presidential nominee. That would lead to some interesting campaign ads, that's for sure.

But Democrats shouldn't get too gleeful at watching Republicans squirm, though. No matter what happens, the Republicans aren't going to go away. Even if "the Republican Party" disappears from the American political landscape, the members of that party won't. They may rename themselves, or they may spend one election cycle in complete and utter disarray, but that doesn't equate to a future of one-party Democratic rule or anything. Whatever they wind up calling themselves, conservatives will still be with us, in other words.

But the time for pretense is over, for Republicans. Instead of having to say with a straight face "I will support Donald Trump as nominee" while deep down inside knowing it isn't true, Republicans are now able to state their intentions without making news for breaking a silly pledge. Now the anti-Trump or "NeverTrump" movement can operate right out in the open. They can fully make the argument against Trump and not be accused by other Republicans of being insufficiently loyal to the party. It's really the only chance they've got left to stop Trump, so it will be interesting to see how many of them (and which ones) decide to use this tactic. It's probably too late, but at least now the anti-Trump faction can be a lot more unashamed and honest about their true beliefs. With the loyalty oath now pronounced null and void by all three candidates left in the race (which, ignoring the weasel words, is what just happened), the rest of the Republicans are now free to tell the public what they really think of Donald Trump.


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