Kevin Williamson argues that it is “absolutely the right thing to do” for Republican presidential aspirants to break their pledge to support the Republican nominee now that Trump seems to have the nomination locked up. In Williamson’s view, taking the pledge was a mistake in judgment and, as such, can be forgiven. Supporting Trump, by contrast, would be an unforgivable breach of honor.
I see it differently. The promise to support the GOP nominee wasn’t just a judgment, it was a pledge. Breaking a pledge, absent extreme circumstances, is dishonorable.
The nomination of Trump isn’t an extreme circumstances. It occurred in the usual way — Republican voters thought he was the best option.
The candidates knew when they made the pledge that Trump might be the nominee. They also knew of his many deficiencies. They could not, of course, anticipate every awful utterance he would make. But, with two exceptions I discuss below, Trump’s post-pledge utterances are just additional blemishes on a face that already was severely pock marked.
For me, then, the keeping the pledge is a matter of honor. By contrast, turning now to the other side of Williamson’s equation, the decision whether support Trump (pledge aside) is a matter of judgment.
Those of us making this decision want to assess how much worse than Trump (if at all) Hillary Clinton is. This requires an assessment of what a Trump presidency and a Clinton presidency would look like in multiple respects.
We should also judge whether there is a threshold a candidate must meet to earn our vote even if he is the lesser of two evils. We must define that threshold (if we agree there is one, as I think there is) and then assess whether Trump meets it.
Ultimately, I think we must decide whether to be pragmatic or idealistic about our vote.
I would rather defend making the wrong judgment on these questions (some of which I regard as rather close) than breaking a promise to the voters.
I mentioned, though, two exceptions that, in my view, would justify breaking the pledge. As Williamson points out, Trump suggested that Ted Cruz’s father was somehow mixed up in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. To me, this comment is an extreme circumstance and one that Cruz could not have anticipated when he made the pledge. Because Trump has dishonored Cruz’s father, it would not be dishonorable for Cruz to renege on his pledge.
Trump also dishonored Jeb Bush’s brother. He accused George W. Bush of invading Iraq based on a claim he knew to be false — the claim that Iraq possessed WMD.
Trump presented no evidence to support this slander. The strong consensus within our intelligence community and intelligence communities around the world was that Iraq did possess WMD. Moreover, it is ludicrous to suppose that Bush would start a war with Iraq over WMD if he knew we wouldn’t find any there.
In my view, Cruz and Bush therefore are not honor bound to support Trump. So too in the case of any other candidates with family members slandered by Trump to this degree.
The remaining candidates should keep their word.
Finally, I agree with Quin Hillyer that the pledge was to support the Republican nominee, not the presumptive nominee. Thus, candidates who haven’t yet endorsed Trump are not in breach of their promise at this point.