Well, this is going to be an interesting week — a week in which the ultimate Donald Trump question may, or may not, be answered: Can he say absolutely anything at all and still win the Republican nomination? It has already been established that there is no upper limit to the boorishness he is permitted by his foolish followers. But in Saturday's debate, Trump firmly established himself as a policy apostate in the GOP race. And the question now is, will conservatives tolerate a candidate who is well to the left of the Democratic mainstream on some crucial national-security issues, and also a supporter of Planned Parenthood?
We knew most of this before, but Trump placed the following markers in the South Carolina debate:
- He once again claimed opposition to the Iraq war. This is a position that even most Republicans agree with nowadays, but Trump took it in the harshest possible way, by making it a personal attack on President George W. Bush.
- And then he launched himself into cloud-cuckooland by asserting that Bush had knowingly lied about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. He "lied us into war" was, I think, the Trumpian term of art. This is a position that only the left of the left has entertained. The truth is, the U.S. intelligence community was absolutely convinced Saddam had chemical and biological weapons, but not so certain about nuclear capability. The Bush Administration — especially the Cheney-Rumsfeld phalanx — did many questionable and some outright sordid things, but they went to war actually thinking there were WMD in Iraq. It was still one of the two or three worst decisions ever made by an American President, but the casus belli wasn't faked.
- Trump hinted at the unsavory roots of that decision when he implied that George W. Bush might have prevented the 9/11 attacks. We'll never know — which is why Democrats haven't made more of it in the past. But it is absolutely clear that members of the Clinton Administration, most notably terrorism expert Richard Clarke and the late Sandy Berger, warned the incoming Bush national-security specialists about the threat of asymmetric terrorism. Berger told me that he was "hair-on-fire" vehement about the al-Qaeda threat. The trouble was, the Cheney-Rumsfeld crew were operating on a threat matrix that was 20 years out of date: they still saw state actors — like Iraq — as a greater threat than al-Qaeda. They also figured, disastrously, that Iraq would be an easy win, a message sent about American strength. It was, instead, a message sent about American ignorance of the sectarian strains in the region and an overweening nationalistic arrogance. So Trump is on pretty firm ground with this charge as well.
- The real killer: Trump said that Planned Parenthood did "wonderful work" on women's health issues, although he disagreed with the group's abortion services. This is true. It is an article of faith among millennial women, who use Planned Parenthood for contraception advice, sexually-transmitted-disease testing and many other health services. To the Republican base, and politicians like Ted Cruz (and, in this case, Marco Rubio) who traffic in bumper stickers, Planned Parenthood is a baby-killing machine that sells butchered body parts. It has no redeeming social value. And Trump's expression of support, in the midst of a crucial debate, had to be shocking.
Will any of this matter? Who knows? Trump, apparently, could be celebrated for the appearance of truth-telling when he slimed John McCain and Megyn Kelly and New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski (and Hillary Clinton's mid-debate pit stop). These were the sort of nasty things that politicians just don't say — and since politicians were thoroughly discredited in the minds of Trump's followers, his impolitic ugliness could be confused with candor, and therefore mistaken for being willing to "tell it like it is," even if he was telling it like it wasn't. But he has crossed another line now: Will evangelicals consider his support for Planned Parenthood "telling it like it is"? And how will South Carolina's large military community react to his calling George W. Bush a "liar"?
It is possible that Trump's balloon may have lost air Saturday night because his puerile petulance reached new levels of infancy. But if Trump does begin to fizzle in South Carolina, it probably will be because he finally crossed an ideological line that he'd never crossed before.
And if he doesn't fizzle … well, the Republican panjandrums are going to have to ask themselves what their party actually does stand for.