When historians look back at the 2016 presidential elections in the United State and ask the important question: “When did the whole thing turn into an uncontrolled dumpster fire?” the consensus answer will almost certainly be the third weekend of July 2015.
Case in point: The past few days have seen Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the man who almost single-handedly launched the political career of one of the most divisive and ill-equipped people ever to pollute a modern day presidential ticket, blasting another politician for stirring up the “crazies” in the Republican Party.
That man was, as anybody paying attention well knows, real estate magnate and dinner-guest-from-hell Donald J. Trump. There was no need for Trump to respond to McCain, but there were a lot of options for him if he wanted to do so.
“Crazies?” he could have said. “Two words: Sarah Palin.” Boom. Argument over. Advantage: Trump.
Or, he could have gone straight to the point that the “crazies” McCain was referring to were actually his own constituents, who showed up to cheer Trump at an Arizona rally.
Instead, Trump decided to attack McCain on the one issue on which is he is objectively invulnerable: his status as a war hero. McCain, a pilot shot down over Vietnam, was injured in the crash, wounded again when he was discovered, and then tortured during more than 5 years of captivity. To this day, McCain can’t lift his arms above his head because of his injuries. Given the option of early release, he refused, insisting that men held longer than he had been had to be returned home first.
Nevertheless, at a conservative summit in key early primary state Iowa, Trump ripped into McCain, “He’s a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said. “I like the people who weren’t captured.”
Amid the firestorm of criticism that followed, Trump correctly pointed out that he is leading the GOP field in national polls and that some of the most vocal members of the GOP lining up to denounce him happened to be presidential candidates with the lowest poll numbers.
He refused to apologize for denigrating McCain’s service. On Twitter and in campaign press releases, he continued to attack McCain, claiming that the Arizona Republican has failed to do enough to help American veterans.
In an interview with ABC’s Martha Raddatz on Sunday morning, he said his appearance in Iowa had been a huge success.
“When I left the room it was a total standing ovation,” he bragged.
He added, “I’m very disappointed in John McCain…He’s done nothing to help the vets. They are living in hell.”
Trump went on to defend, with much hand-waving, his own multiple academic exemptions from the draft as well as his medical exemption based on a bone spur in his foot – which foot, he couldn’t remember.
His fellow GOP presidential candidates – some of whom had been conspicuously unwilling to criticize him for calling most illegal Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists – didn’t hold back this time. They lashed out saying he was unfit to be commander in chief of the armed forces and he should drop out of the race.
Even the GOP itself, which does its best to stay above primary infighting, got in on the act.
“There is no place in our party or our country for comments that disparage those who have served honorably,” said Republican National Committee chief strategist and communications director Sean Spicer.
Telling Trump he has no place in the GOP could be a good thing for the party, if he packs his tents and leaves. But from the Bull Moose Party to Ross Perot to Ralph Nader, third party candidates have a history of playing hell with presidential election, and the GOP may need to be careful what it wishes for.
Given the extraordinary Republican infighting over the weekend, one might have expected the Democrats to just make some popcorn and settle back and wallow in Schadenfreude.
Not so much.
On Saturday, the progressive Netroots Nation conference in Los Angeles attracted the two Democratic candidates who most arguably represent the party’s left wing: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.
Both can make credible arguments for being demonstrably to the left of Hillary Clinton, the prohibitive frontrunner, on most social issues. Yet both were attacked and interrupted by protestors focused on police violence against African Americans.
O’Malley was more or less chased from the stage, and faced massive criticism for making what, in most other contexts, would have been the mundane observation that, “Black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter.”
However, in the context created by the protestors – members of the organization Black Lives Matter – his comments made him look as though he was equating the demonstrably unequal treatment of African Americans by police with the less frequent abuse of white suspects.
Sanders tried to push back against the protestors, but his appearance was also cut short by his interviewer in the face of vocal protestors.
Only 16 months to the election.