Democrats who sided with the Bush administration on the 2002 Iraq War vote have been raked over the coals in every presidential election since. She lacked good judgment, Barack Obama said of Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential race. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the same in 2016. Not just Clinton, but scores of Senate and House Democrats in contested primaries had to rebut attacks from the left that they were snookered by the Bush administration or war mongers. Given the conclusion of every Western intelligence agency that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, the attacks were unfair and over the top. Nevertheless, it was an ordeal for many who were judged harshly by their party.
In the case of the 2016 Donald Trump vote, however, Republicans who insist on sticking by Trump have known every step of the way what they were getting into. They knew Trump was ignorant, racist, cruel, dishonest and narcissistic. They kept hoping he’d get “back on message” or get smarter advisers or learn something about critical policy issues. He never has, and any honest assessment of his character should have told them such fixes are destined to fail. There is something very wrong with Trump, and whatever it is predictably made him more unhinged as he fell behind in the polls.
So in future elections will candidates such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) be castigated for poor judgment, for having been “snookered” by the Trumpkins and for failing to look out for the party’s and country’s interests? It’s hard to tell from the midst of a presidential race whether Republicans will be more forgiving of pro-Trump Republicans than Democrats were of pro-Iraq War Democrats.
Judging from the Iraq War example, it won’t be enough for Republicans to claim that lots of Republicans made the same error or that it was politically untenable to withhold support. Those dogs didn’t hunt for Democrats on the Iraq War controversy and Republicans have even less reason to be lenient with the pro-Trump Republicans. After all, there have been many, many Republicans who got Trump right, delegates who went after him and third-candidate efforts to draw votes from him and from Clinton.
If Republicans do hold their fellow party members to account for supporting an indefensible candidate, what do the latter say? For one thing, the pro-Trump Republicans can apologize and admit error. Wouldn’t it have been better for the delegates at the convention to have replaced Trump? Of course. Wouldn’t it have been better had Reince Priebus, like Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) did, looked after the long-term interests of the party (e.g. narrowed the debate field quicker, not insisted everyone would rally around Trump no matter what) to avoid the prospect of an eccentric and unfit nominee? You bet. Surely the GOP would be better situated had a critical mass of Republicans gotten behind a third conservative candidate soon after Trump wrapped up the nomination.
As for the right-wing groups, publications and other enablers who went the extra mile (and around the bend) for Trump, there is no reason Republicans hereafter should listen to them, send them money or include them in discussions about the future of the party. Really, does any Republican think Newt Gingrich or Rudy Giuliani will have any credibility after November?
It will be up to the Trump-endorsers and enablers to, if they desire, get back in the good graces of the party. It’s true that a single bad decision — even a really, really bad one — does not mean that you have nothing to contribute in the future. Depending on how enthusiastic they were on Trump’s behalf, how badly they bullied their fellow Republicans and just how many seats are lost in November, it’s possible some of the pro-Trump Republicans might forge on. If, 13 years after her vote on Iraq, Clinton can still be president then I suppose Trump apologists like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) or Rubio might one day get to the White House. Some Republicans will forgive and forget (or have come of political age long after Trump’s campaign ends). Not all of us, however.