It was the question that begged to be asked, though I thought it would be asked only of Donald Trump. Brett Baier began the prime-time debate (video of relevant segment here) on Thursday night with
Gentlemen, we know how much you love hand-raising questions. So we promise, this is the only one tonight: the only one. Is there anyone on stage, and can I see hands, who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person.
Again, we're looking for you to raise your hand now -- raise your hand now if you won't make that pledge tonight.
As everyone now knows, Donald Trump raised his hand. It would have been easy for him to do as everyone else did, remain motionless, and if he wished, run as an independent in the general election. He could have made an excuse and anyone inclined to support him wouldn't have cared about the deception, anyway. But he raised his hand, after which the following exchange took place:
Mr. Trump to be clear, you're standing on a Republican primary debate stage.
TRUMP: I fully understand.
BAIER: The place where the RNC will give the nominee the nod.
TRUMP: I fully understand.
BAIER: And that experts say an independent run would almost certainly hand the race over to Democrats and likely another Clinton.
You can't say tonight that you can make that pledge?
TRUMP: I cannot say. I have to respect the person that, if it's not me, the person that wins, if I do win, and I'm leading by quite a bit, that's what I want to do. I can totally make that pledge. If I'm the nominee, I will pledge I will not run as an independent. But -- and I am discussing it with everybody, but I'm, you know, talking about a lot of leverage. We want to win, and we will win. But I want to win as the Republican. I want to run as the Republican nominee.
The initial question may have been difficult for an independent egomaniac to handle: "Mr. Trump to be clear, you're standing on a Republican primary debate stage." But when Brett Baier followed it by noting the venue was "where the RNC will give the nominee the nod" and "experts say an independent run would almost certainly hand the race over to Democrats and likely another Clinton," Trump should have recognized the hanging curve.
Baier didn't intend to throw a hanging curve; no pitcher does. A curve ball is generally a little harder to hit than a fastball but once in a while it backfires. And this from Baier should have.
When he heard the initials "RNC," it should have triggered an obvious response from a self-styled maverick. "RNC," the Republican National Committee, can be easily demonized as the "party bosses" or "back-room politicians." No one likes party back-room politicians or, rather, no one thinks he does.
And when Baier raised the specter of an almost inevitable victory for Hillary Clinton were an independent race run, Trump could have turned the remark around and against his opponents. "Of course I would have considered running," he might have remarked, "if the candidate of my party does not want to run as Republicans in our exceptional country want him to, but rather as a RINO." If the party bosses select a Republican In Name Only, Trump could have boasted, he might challenge them by making a conservative, independent race.
Further, the candidate might have added, "if we run another moderate, we'll lose again." It's gospel within the GOP base that the last two presidential elections were lost because its nominee was a moderate who chose to campaign as a moderate. Throw in Ronald Reagan's name for good measure because every Republican believes the sainted Reagan was a man's man (before these squeamish days of "political correctness"), let alone a conservative's conservative.
Instead, Donald Trump left the impression it was all about him. That's o.k. with the Repub voter base and its donor base- as long as it's about making money, for which selfishness is to be admired. But it doesn't work for Trump if he allows the issue to be framed such that if he were to make good on his implied threat, it would allow the dreaded Hillary Rodham Clinton to become president.
Checking your swing, or failing to check your swing, at a slow curve leads to a strike, rather than an out. However, not too many opportunities like this arise, and Trump whiffed at this one.