Reince Priebus Doomed His Party With His Stupid 'Loyalty Pledge'

Smooth move, idiot.

Tuesday night, during a televised town hall interview on CNN, Stygian homunculus and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was asked if he still planned to honor a pledge he made some months prior, in which he promised to support the eventual GOP nominee. As you might imagine, given Trump's famous flexibility toward concepts such as "honor" and "promises," the candidate answered that no, he had no intention of following that pledge's directive, telling CNN's Anderson Cooper, "No, I don't anymore."

So now, everyone in the political universe is coming to grips with one of the most foreseeable events in the Western hemisphere finally coming to pass -- Trump's explicit abrogation of a contractual obligation he made with Republican National Committee head Reince Priebus. Now, the remaining competitors for the nomination -- Ted Cruz and John Kasich -- are slowly coming around to the notion that they might want to similarly withdraw their tacit offer of support for a candidate they have long despised. Perhaps the most shocking thing about this is that it's only now that these men have decided to embark on a spree of thinking for themselves.

But the failure of this pledge should stun nobody. Priebus' pledge was always a catastrophically dumb idea and its utter collapse was always just a matter of time. It was a bonehead gamble from the outset, tying the hands of the very people it was ostensibly designed to protect, and empowering a serial con artist to run roughshod over the Republican Party. It should end Priebus' career.

Let's cast our minds back to when this all began. In mid-September of 2015, Donald Trump had already revealed himself as someone who'd likely be a toxic embarrassment to the Republican Party. He'd already punctured the hopes that the RNC had expressed in its post-2012 election "autopsy" of restoring a good-faith relationship with Hispanic voters. He'd also insulted a party leader, John McCain, and countless veterans by labelling the Arizona senator as a loser for having been captured by the enemy during the Vietnam War.

In essence, Trump was already branding himself as the sort of candidate who party elites and a portion of the voting base was certain to loathe. But he'd also positioned himself as a man who would unleash dire consequences on the Republican Party if expressions of that loathing became too public or severe, chief among them being a threatened independent run.

In fairness to Priebus, it is important to remember that at this particular moment, very few people believed that Trump might emerge as the front-runner for his party's nomination. What the RNC chair sought to mitigate was the possibility that the party's eventual nominee -- presumably a favored-nation candidate like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or Scott Walker -- would have their electoral fortunes crippled by an angry Trump running on his own, and poaching a not-insignificant number of general election voters from the GOP's grasp.

And so he hit upon a brilliant idea: make Trump promise to support the eventual nominee. Only he couldn't simply force Trump to be this pledge's sole signer. He had to bind the rest of the GOP candidates to the same obligation, which they happily did. 

And when it eventually came to pass that Trump agreed to the same conditions, it was treated like Priebus had cagily averted a future crisis. Of course, before the ink of the scrawled signature that Trump's teensy fingers put on the dotted line was dry, the real estate mogul was claiming exceptions for himself that none of the other candidates had similarly enunciated, saying that he'd abide by this contract as long as he was treated "fairly" -- a condition stated so vaguely that it ought to have been an immediate red flag.

In essence, this was the real problem with this pledge -- it did more to constrain Trump's primary opponents than it ever constrained Trump. In fact, it incentivized a timidity among Trump's opponents -- make one wrong move, offer the wrong sort of criticism, and you get to be famously known as the person who sent Trump off on his independent candidacy, dooming the party's presidential hopes. 

Priebus wanted to shepherd his party toward a 2016 win? Well, you have to give him some credit -- he certainly succeeded in creating sheep.

The effects of this misaligned incentive were quick to manifest themselves. No candidate stepped up to attack Trump for his decades-long career of scam-artistry and boorish comportment. Opposition research files were kept under wraps. It became more common for Trump's opponents to attack each other for not attacking Trump. And a few of Trump's fellow candidates -- most notably Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz -- opted to cozy up to the mogul in hopes that obsequious flattery might better serve their ends.

Even when Trump's opponents decided to ramp up their criticism, that stupid pledge kept them all in check. That's how America got to witness the phenomenon of Jeb Bush, days after referring to Trump as an unhinged "chaos candidate" continue to profess a willingness to back him as his party's nominee. Asked by CNN's John Berman if Trump would make a better president than Hillary Clinton, Jeb could only muster that he didn't "think Hillary Clinton's gonna be elected president of the United States." Pressed on that, Bush said, "I've learned not to answer questions." That's Reince Priebus' stupid pledge talking.

Heck, even after Marco Rubio embarked on a berserker campaign to throw every scintilla of Trump opposition research at the front-runner in one last-ditch fusillade of desperation -- even he couldn't bring himself to commit to withhold support for Trump if he won the nomination.  

REPORTER: Would you support [Trump] if he was the nominee?

RUBIO: I don't know. I've already talked about the fact that I think Hillary Clinton would be terrible for this country, but the fact that you're even asking me that question ... uhh ... I still at this moment continue to intend to support the Republican nominee, but ... getting harder every day.

Getting harder? At this point, Rubio had repeatedly averred that Trump was a dangerous "con artist" who would destroy the Republican Party! What finally does the trick here?

Such was the neutering effect of Priebus' daffy pledge that supposedly rational people could in one breath decry Trump as a looming psychotic threat who needed to be denied access to the nuclear football at all costs, and in the next vow that he'd have their unwavering support if chosen to be the standard-bearer of the party of personal responsibility. (The thing that seems to have brought Ted Cruz to the brink of abrogating the pledge? Trump impugned the honor of Cruz's wife. To be sure, that's a not-nice thing for Trump to have done, but it's hardly a matter of world historical importance to America's citizens.)

Priebus' error really boils down to a classic failure of nerve. Faced with the prospect of Trump peeling off a large enough portion of the GOP base with an independent run, Priebus blinked. And the truth is that he blinked at a bluff that he ought to have called, because the prospect of a Trump running this sort of candidacy was always specious. The undertaking would have likely been too arduous, and too expensive, for Trump to really consider.

Think about what we know of Trump's extant campaign. The most talented person he could find to run it is Corey Lewandowski, who has now been arrested for battery. Trump isn't a man who would attract cutting-edge talent to help perform all of the necessary tasks of coordinating an independent run. The entire reason he's running as a Republican is to have access to the infrastructural services that make such a run possible. On his own, he'd be incapable of attracting a team of campaign hands to run field operations, obtain ballot access, manage a get-out-the-vote effort, conduct polling, and coordinate a national campaign.

His campaign team right now isn't good enough, even with party resources at its disposal. Trump got outworked by Cruz's operation in Louisiana, who shrewdly played the state party inside game to poach delegates and committeemen from Trump, despite his having won the state's primary. This is actually why Trump is now violating the pledge: He thinks that his having failed to actually perform these basic campaign tasks is tantamount to the RNC being "unfair." But this is precisely how the GOP primary works! Trump just doesn't want to do the work.

Another matter that Priebus should have considered is that Trump's vaunted wealth is generally held to be substantially overrated, and not sufficient to run a self-funded campaign. Trump's talked a good game about eschewing the billionaire funders that prop up other Republican campaigns because he alone "can't be bought." The truth is that before he heaped derision upon big donors, he went out of his way to try to win their favor. (Those donors declined to help him.)

For all Trump's talk about his alleged net worth, it sure doesn't sound like he's got a lot of liquid cash on which he could lay his (tiny) hands. Even when Trump offers his own explanations of how much he's worth, he makes it explicit that it's largely ephemeral -- literally dependent on his own self-conception of what his personal brand (the market value of slapping the word "Trump" in gold leaf on a random product or edifice) should be valued at on any given day.

During his libel suit against former New York Times reporter (and former Huffington Post editor) Tim O'Brien, Trump had this interaction with O'Brien's counsel, Andrew Ceresny, during their deposition of Trump:

TRUMP: My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with the markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings, but I try.

CERESNEY: Let me just understand that a little. You said your net worth goes up and down based upon your own feelings?

TRUMP: Yes, even my own feelings, as to where the world is, where the world is going, and that can change rapidly from day to day ...

CERESNEY: When you publicly state a net worth number, what do you base that number on?

TRUMP: I would say it's my general attitude at the time that the question may be asked. And as I say, it varies.

(By the way, according to one estimate of how his personal brand has fared since embarking on his presidential campaign, it has been "slowly, excruciatingly crumbling.")

Still, with even a small chance that a Trump independent run could be funded and built and run with enough success to keep even a tiny percentage of the GOP vote from the party's nominee, could Priebus have afforded to take the risk?

Well, let's retcon this. Imagine a world in which Priebus told Trump that his party didn't want to have anything to do with him, daring him to take it on the arches and run as an independent candidate. Trump doesn't get to participate in the Republican debates. He doesn't get to compete in primaries. He doesn't get to use these events as a springboard to catapult himself to prominence.

Access to media opportunities are drastically reduced. Maybe he's getting to call in to Fox News on occasion, but news editors at other cable networks aren't reflexively putting his phone calls on the air. Maybe he's holding rallies, but there's more room for coverage of Jeb Bush's events, and Marco Rubio's events, and Scott Walker's events.

In short, there's no real avenue for Trump to perform his reality-television hucksterism on the media's biggest stages. And more importantly, there's nothing to "win." No debate histrionics, no primary night victory speeches. And the candidates that Priebus has effectively neutered get to call Trump a loser as often as they like, without any fear of violating some ersatz party sacrament.

In this alternate history, Trump is left as he was in the run-up to the 2014 New York gubernatorial race, demanding that Republican Party officials clear the field so he can run unopposed. Without the Republican Party coddling him, that's what Trump is as a politician: reluctant, needy, lazy, and scared.

But now, Priebus faces the prospect of nominating one of the most alienating candidates a major party has ever put forth. He also has to fret about the potentially disastrous effect Trump's nomination will have on the Republican Party's down-ticket races. And the kicker? Priebus still hasn't killed Trump's independent run threat. If anything, he's greatly enhanced Trump's ability to pull it off.

Of course, now Trump has stated that he has no intention of following the pledge. It's a dead letter. He's violated his promise. So, now, Priebus has a free hand to mete out the dire consequences.

And that's the final problem with the pledge: there are no consequences. There was never any sort of enforcement mechanism. No stick to pair with the carrot. Trump loses nothing by going back on his word. He'll keep his delegates and privileges.

It turns out that the pledge designed to protect the Republican Party from Donald Trump has only punished those who steadfastly honored it.

In a vaguely sporting move, Trump -- the guy who has truly administered this pledge from the outset -- has given his remaining competitors the allowance to abrogate that pledge as well. It would seem that Cruz shall take Trump up on that generous offer. As for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, he's still not so sure what he's going to do, saying, "I'll see what happens."

Well, what happened is that you got boned by Reince Priebus, John. Good luck with all that.

Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.


Jason Linkins edits "Eat The Press" for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast "So, That Happened." Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.