Grudge Match: Trump Vs. McCain

Donald Trump

image courtesy of Donald Trump for President

Grudge Match: Trump Vs. McCain
| published July 19, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

If you are looking for the front lines in what may become a nasty battle to control the Republican narrative as more than a dozen candidates head into the first GOP debate in Cleveland next month, look no further than the war of words between current polling front-runner Donald Trump, and U.S. Senator John McCain, himself a veteran of two presidential runs.

Like plenty of others in the GOP, McCain started to complain openly last week that Trump—businessman, TV show host, entertainer—was stealing the Republican conversation and depleting the oxygen in the room. Worse, Trump has been giving daily fodder to Democrats who will point to the hotel owner’s frequent inelegant and politically incorrect tirades as de facto evidence of a Republican Party not merely off message, but out of touch with the country. That Trump has edged out other previous poll leaders, such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, only heightens the chatter for progressives and liberals, who now see a Republican Party careening toward self-immolation.

Trump’s bashing of his GOP opponents has been more-or-less non-stop. Example: Trump sent a message out on Twitter last week declaring that Texas Governor Rick Perry should be forced to take an IQ test before running for President. Trump also threw a rotten tomato at Bush last months when he said of the former Governor “this guy can’t negotiate his way out of a paper bag.”

But the responses from presumptive leaders—Bush, Walker, Florida’s Marco Rubio, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and others—to the Trumpster’s insults had for two weeks been restrained and polite. Bush and Rubio each bemoaned Trump’s controversial outbursts on immigration, but were careful to craft their responses in terms that kept the conversation upbeat and focused on the need for positive reform. Huckabee, a social conservative, has kept his retorts to a minimum, but when he has addressed Trump’s rants the former presidential candidate has been characteristically magnanimous and graceful. Walker has been careful to avoid a dustup with Trump.

But McCain, who ran for President in 2000 and again in 2008, is not known for shying away from a street fight. McCain said that Trump’s outrageous comments on immigration had “fired up the crazies” and had revealed Trump to be a quasi-bigot bent on racial divisiveness. In response, Trump this weekend described McCain as “a dummy” and do-nothing “has-been” not qualified to offer an opinion.

On Saturday, at a conservative forum hosted by religious leaders and Family Leadership Summit, moderator Frank Luntz sought to offer Trump an opportunity to back down from his complaints about other Republicans, including McCain. Luntz characterized McCain as a war hero, a phrase which Trump pounced upon quickly.

“He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

After the summit, Trump bore down on his comments, telling reporters that it takes more than simply being held in captivity to declare oneself a hero. Trump again admonished McCain for ineffectiveness and laziness in Washington.

“I don’t like the job McCain is doing in the Senate,” Trump said, “because he is not taking care of our veterans.”

Air Force veteran, Air National Guardsman, and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, himself officially a candidate for 2016, said he was outraged by the insults Trump has lobbed at McCain. Referencing one of Trump’s popular reality TV shows (recently cancelled), Graham said voters in early primary and caucus states would send a message, “Donald Trump, you’re fired!” Graham was recalled to active service during the Gulf War, during which time he served as a Judge Advocate, sometimes advising pilots on the rules and laws of modern warfare. Graham has referred to Trump as "a wrecking ball" and characterized Trump's comments on immigration as "demagoguery."

Graham has also described Trump's comments on both immigration and McCain's war record as having "crossed the line." Graham also thought that voters will evenutally wash Trump out of contention.

"I think that the American people," Graham said, "the caucusgoers, the primary voters, are going to fix this. To the other candidates, this is your chance to do the right thing and disassociate yourself from somebody who has basically shown a lack of judgment to be commander in chief and to be President.

Also in response to Trump’s thumping of McCain, Jeb Bush tweeted “enough with the slanderous attacks [on] McCain and our veterans—particularly POW’s who have earned our respect and admiration.” Texan Rick Perry, an Air Force veteran who rose to the rank of captain, issued a statement saying that he “was highly offended by what Donald Trump said about John McCain and his years of sacrifice in a dirty, dingy terrible prison in North Vietnam.” Perry added that Trump owes McCain, and other veterans who spent time as prisoners of war, an apology. Huckabee declined to choose sides in the brawl, but placed the burden on Trump to amend his words on McCain’s war record. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a recent arrival to the 2016 sweepstakes, indicated that he thought Trump’s comments on McCain were unwarranted and unworthy of a Presidential campaign.

McCain, currently the senior senator from Arizona, was a Navy fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. In early 1967, McCain was nearly killed on the flight deck of the USS Forrestal when ordnance caught fire, triggering a chain reaction of explosions and detonations. McCain narrowly escaped from the cockpit of a plane before the fire engulfed much of the carrier, and he was injured from flying shrapnel as he attempted to pull another aviator from the carnage.

Later that same year, on a bombing mission over North Vietnam, McCain’s A-4E Skyhawk was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. Though he was able to eject from the burning aircraft, he broke both arms and one leg when his seat smashed through the canopy. He parachuted into a small lake, but was injured further by Vietnamese civilians and soldiers after he dragged from the shallow water and beaten with the butt-end of rifles and stabbed with a bayonet. McCain was taken to the notorious Hoa Lo Prison, where his captors withheld medical treatment for weeks while he was tortured for information about U.S. war plans. The torture stopped abruptly after North Vietnamese officials discovered that McCain came from a military family and that his father was a high-ranking admiral in the U.S. Navy. McCain was subsequently treated for his injuries, and thereafter used for propaganda purposes from Hanoi.

Later, when Hanoi offered to release the high-profile McCain—now the subject of numerous newspaper articles in the U.S. and in Vietnam—as part of a humanitarian effort, McCain refused to cooperate, insisting that if he be released only if those Americans who had been captured prior to his arrival were also released first—a standard interpretation by U.S. officers of conduct during incarceration by the enemy.

The dust-up between McCain and Trump may be the first of many such discordant moments between mainstream GOP candidates and the irascible, often unpredictable Trump. The businessman and TV show host often defines himself as an entertainer first, and a politician second. This means that his high-profile outbursts will continue, as will his New Yorker’s love of the lobbed insult. For Trump, the attention translates into instant media buzz, and fairly or not, deprives other candidates from gaining traction. Since his now infamous “drugs and rapists” remarks in reference to immigration issues along the Mexican border, Trump has dominated the headlines and the news feeds, some days and nights edging out nearly all other GOP conversation combined, and eclipsing the campaign activities of Bush, Walker, Rubio, Huckabee and others in the top tier (or what used to be the top tier).

Trump presents a serious, even grave problem, for Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, co-chair Sharon Day, and others, who must now contend with the potential for daily damage as Trump lumbers along from one event to the next, his media encirclement increasing and his every turn-of-phrase amplified. Worse, Trump rarely backs off—even when he is seen by the majority of people as having crossed the line—and he is prone to double down on his statements, rather than walk them back or amend them for political comfort.

And as if to heap irony upon irony on a GOP struggling to makes its message resonate again with Latinos, Trump’s timing on the immigration brouhaha was inadvertently on the mark: days after his controversial statements, a series of horrifying events unfolded in the news across the country involving undocumented immigrants accused of terrible crimes. This gave the ultra-rightwing bloggers an opportunity to crow that Trump was right, and that the businessman needed to neither apologize nor back down from his broadly insensitive remarks. Days after that, notorious drug kingpin Joaquim “El Chapo” Guzman escaped from a maximum security prison in Mexico—a blow to law enforcement in the U.S., Mexico, and a dozen other countries, to be sure, but a godsend to Trump who will again point to a lawless southern border rife with cartels and criminal gangs as the root of crime in America.

There is a split of opinion among mainline Republican thinkers and strategists about how to handle Trump. Some take the view that he should be given sufficient space—and rope—with which to hang himself, an outcome they believe will happen sooner rather than later. If Trump self-destructs during one of the early debates, his departure—perhaps forced by media chatter, perhaps through his descent in the polls—will help to clear the room and allow the ten candidates who continue to make the magic cut established by the networks to proceed, without the distraction of Trump’s attention-getting antics. These thinkers point out also that most GOP contests tend to weed out problem children early. In 2012, for example, Herman Cain briefly soared to the top of the polls, but began his burnout almost as quickly; only three weeks after his zenith, Cain was in freefall.

But the other school of thought says that as long as there is no clear cut favorite or mainline front runner—a Bush, a Rubio, a Walker, or a Cruz, to name but four—the relatively horizontal field gives Trump the advantage, especially going into the first and second debates. Trump’s modus operandi is the direct confrontation, and the insult. Trump’s bellicose style means he will likely produce the most repeatable sound bites and video clips, and most likely in the form of attacks or barbs aimed at the party’s power structure (or those who he thinks represent political power), and that means that we should expect his biggest targets to be Bush, Graham, Perry, along with Chris Christie and George Pataki. Post-debate media analysis will surely break in Trump’s favor. Trump regards such showmanship as central to his strategy: the worse the carnage, the more it benefits Trump.

Furthermore, Trump rarely, if ever, apologizes or explains or modifies. It’s not who he is. Trump’s DNA—and that of his many followers—is threaded with a belief that part of the great American weakness is equivocation and backpedaling. Trump sees himself as a creature of the unvarnished truth, and he sees “politicians” and their non-appointed minions among the media as creatures of dysfunction and self-delusion.

On the talk show circuit on Sunday, Trump engaged in a predictable round of doubling down. On ABC News, reporter Martha Radditz asked Trump pointblank if he owed Senator McCain an apology.

“No, not at all,” Trump fired back, “I will say what I want to say, and maybe that’s why I’m leading in the polls, because people are tired of hearing politicians and pollsters telling the politicians exactly what to say.” Some learned analysts of presidential politics interpreted this to mean he hopes merely to coast on the strength of the media buzz for a few more days, at least until the next opportunity arises in which he can steal the thunder. But those familiar with the Trump style and pattern suggest it is more basic: he’s just being Trump.

Trump has even converted to his own benefit the recent moves by sponsors and TV networks to dump his name, his brand, and his popular shows. To him it proves that he was only useful to the networks and the advertisers as a one man dog-and-pony show, good for ratings and sales; now that he wants to channel people power and challenge Washington power, they want him gone. Spineless cowards, Trump essentially said.

In the meantime, Trump is problematic for Republicans. His boisterousness means he will draw much of the oxygen from the room, depriving the top tier people like Bush, Rubio, Walker and Cruz of room to move, and almost literally suffocating those in the lower tier—Carly Fiorina, George Pataki, John Kasich, Bobby Jindal—the very ones who will already have trouble making the final cut for that first debate.

Both Fox News and CNN plan to limit the number of candidates on stage to ten. That means that at least six candidates will not be on stage in early August when that first debate takes place in Cleveland. One thing is certain: Trump will be on that stage, and viewers can expect a lot of early fireworks, as Trump lobs grenades at the supposed front runners, and as those same candidates seek to dethrone the unexpected front runner.

Related Thursday Review articles:

First GOP Debate May Force Some Candidates to Sidelines; Thursday Review; July 6, 2015.

Chris Christie Makes 2016 Candidacy Official; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 30, 2015.