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Trump's Pledge Won't Harm Republicans

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The big news Thursday was that all 17 Republican presidential candidates -- including Donald Trump -- had signed a pledge to support their party's nominee.

Would this harm the eventual Republican nominee? That's what two sharp analysts, my View colleague Francis Wilkinson and Slate's Jamelle Bouie, said. Here's Wilkinson:

With Trump's pledge this week to back the eventual Republican nominee, [Republican National Committee Chairman Reince] Priebus is lashing every one of his party’s presidential candidates to the anti-immigrant bigotry of Trump.

I don't agree.

Every Republican candidate will have to spell out policy preferences on immigration. This would have happened with or without Trump. I think it's very possible that current immigration talk from the candidates in general, and the eventual nominee in particular, could hurt Republicans in November 2016.

If so, the pledge itself would be superfluous. Attack ads in the general election would highlight the candidate's own statements on immigration and immigrants, or perhaps an array of Republican statements. 

On the other hand, if the nominee makes it to the general without having said anything that could provide fodder for an attack ad -- and if Hispanic voters and others concerned about the issue are open to voting for him or her -- then an ad about the pledge wouldn't make a difference. It would only give the candidate a chance to get further distance from Trump. 

In any case, the nominee could always say: Of course, I promised to support the Republican candidate; I knew there was no chance Republican voters would tolerate anyone making bigoted comments.

In other words, raising the pledge after the nominee is selected only would provide the opportunity for Republicans to distance themselves from Trump.

However, I do agree with Wilkinson, Bouie and others that Trump will run a third-party campaign if he wants to, pledge or no pledge. 

So why bother with the pledge? It's the principle of the thing. As long as Trump is running for the Republican nomination, the minimum the party can do is to insist that he must at least pretend to be a Republican. It's not much, but it's probably better than nothing.

After all, what really keeps the party together is mutual agreement that all its members ultimately are on the same team. Parties must be permeable and allow access to new people and groups and accept them. They also are always at risk that some people and groups could stomp off if they don't get their way. In that sense, Trump is nothing special; he only confirms that parties are only who they, collectively, choose to be at any particular time. So although pledging won't guarantee anything about the future, mutually pledged support is a fine way of thinking about the party in the present.

  1. "Must"? Well, sort of. They have a strong electoral incentive to be open to newcomers, since newcomers mean a bigger party and a better chance of winning elections. At the same time, the nation as a whole will, if it wants to be democratic, insist that the parties are permeable, because that turns out to be critical for democracy

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net