Donald Trump’s refusal to rule out an independent presidential run during the first GOP debate of the 2016 election season put Republican Party officials in a legitimate bind. What happens if Trump or another candidate uses the GOP’s political infrastructure, donor funds, and primary debates as a launch pad for an independent run against the party’s eventual nominee, ultimately spoiling the race in favor of the Democrats?
If that were to happen, Reince Priebus’ Republican National Committee chairmanship would be viewed as an epic failure.
However, in using the party’s sponsorship of and control over officially-recognized Republican presidential primary debates as leverage to pressure all candidates into signing a loyalty pledge, the RNC has set a dangerous precedent. Now, the expectation is that in order to get into the Republican Party’s official presidential debates, each candidate must sign an oath promising not only to swear off an independent run, but also to blindly pre-endorse any of a long list of candidates prior to even debating all of them on the same stage and determining what their positions are. That should be alarming considering the fact that there are 17 announced candidates in this season’s primary.
In fact, in circulating the loyalty pledge so early in the election season, the RNC has asked Republican candidates to sign an oath promising to support the party’s nominee at a time, with candidate filing deadlines still looming, when it might still technically be possible for another candidate to enter the race. In a crowded field, a candidate whose views do not speak for large segments of the party could prevail, forcing single-issue activist candidates to endorse a nominee that on day one of his or her presidency would begin working against them — and conceivably the entire party — on issues. Also, a candidate like Donald Trump, who was a Democrat just a few short years ago, could in theory change his mind on positions at the last minute.
The loyalty oath as a concept will offend Tea Party and libertarian activists who see it as a tool by establishment figures to put the party’s brand over its issues. “Republican in name only” has become a commonly-used pejorative among center-right leaning activist circles to describe brand-focused Republicans who ditch their principles for whatever position polls well after they stealth into office by bamboozling the GOP base into carrying the election for them.
Above the broader concept of the loyalty oath dangles the RNC’s bigger mistake, including language in it that effectively bullies candidates into pledging that they “will endorse the 2016 Republican presidential nominee regardless of who it is.”
During the 2008 and 2012 Republican presidential primaries, candidate Ron Paul said from the beginning that he had no intention of running as an independent if he were to lose. There was no need for a loyalty oath because even Ron Paul, with his near-total disregard for political expediency, realized that he had to rule out an independent run to have any practical shot at winning the nomination.
However, former Congressman Paul likely would not have signed a promise to endorse the nominee because not doing so was essential, not only to his principled approach to advocacy, but also to his strategy of collecting delegates that would go on to influence the party at the Republican National Convention. This is often a crucial step in reconciling the party when it is struggling internally with major debates over important issues.
Put simply, if the RNC had made the signing of a similar oath a condition for being a participant in the party’s debates in 2008, Ron Paul would have never signed it and his historic debate performances that inspired an entire generation of activists never would have taken place.
Promising to support the eventual nominee no matter who it is forces candidates to marry themselves to their own attack ads. What kind of schizophrenic message does it send when a candidate spends months warning about how dangerous another candidate will be only to then endorse them months later?
As a former elected county-wide Republican Party official on what is effectively Nashville, Tennessee’s subsidiary of the RNC, I understand the importance of the brand-building job that comes with being an official on a Republican Party executive committee. However, is this loyalty oath going to create a bigger Republican Party or will it create a smaller, more obedient one while, over time, systematically pushing issue-focused and principled conservatives and libertarians out and into the arms of a rising third party?
Also, out of respect for independents who are the fastest growing voter segment in the U.S., it is important to consider the fact, pointed out by Ben Swann in the below-embedded CBS46 Atlanta Reality Check video, that independent taxpayers themselves are forced to invest in the primary system yet do not have a way to get candidates into debates. By limiting the ability for right-leaning independent candidates to participate in the Republican primary process and its debates over issues, which either directly or implicitly tying a loyalty oath to debate participation will do, the RNC is disenfranchising them and giving them no choice but to work to create a third party.
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