Will John McCain get Donald Trump to apologize to American POWs?

So far John McCain is taking the high road after Donald Trump's weekend criticism of McCain's military service. On NBC, McCain said Trump doesn’t owe him an apology – but he does owe one to the nation's POWs.

Nati Harnik/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, Saturday.

What’s John McCain going to do to Donald Trump?

That’s the questioning buzzing in the D.C. punditocracy this July Monday morning. Perhaps you heard that over the weekend The Donald derided Senator McCain’s Vietnam War experience, saying that Navy aviator McCain wasn’t a war hero because he’d been shot down and captured.

“I like people who weren’t captured,” said Mr. Trump.

OK, Trump may have been provoked here – McCain’s said Trump has “fired up the crazies” with anti-immigration language. But a personal attack of this nature on a powerful and somewhat retributive US lawmaker whose father and grandfather were both admirals, and who reveres the honor of military duty in his bones?

This is going to affect Trump’s nascent presidential bid in a major way. The only question is how.

So far McCain is taking the high road. On NBC this morning, he said Trump doesn’t owe him an apology.

“I think he may own an apology to the families of those who have sacrificed in conflict and those who have undergone the prison experience in serving their country,” said McCain.

But everybody who knows the senior senator from Arizona thinks things won’t end there. Revenge is best served cold, etc. Perhaps McCain will challenge Trump to a duel. That’s what the Monitor’s Brad Knickerbocker suggested over the weekend. Swords or pistols?

As Knickerbocker points out, Trump’s jibe goes right to the heart of a decades-old US conflict that still haunts many baby boomers: What did you do during the Vietnam War? Many served. Others, like Trump, piled deferments on top of deferments, due to student stand and health issues, and avoided the military.

Trump got an Ivy League education and began his real estate career. McCain languished in a notorious North Vietnamese prison. Have you ever noticed that McCain doesn’t raise his arms above his shoulders when waving to a crowd? That’s because he can’t, due to the aftereffects of the torture he suffered.

The North Vietnamese offered to release McCain early, as a gesture to his high-ranking father. He refused.

The irony today is that McCain isn’t wildly popular within the GOP, as many commentators note. He is, yes, something of a maverick. His temper is legendary.

But Trump’s intemperate attack on the GOP’s 2008 presidential candidate has now united the top ranks of the party against him. Most political scientists believe that presidential nominee races are in the end determined by a loose coalition of party activists, state chairman, and elected officials. If so, The Donald is doomed.

“Party leaders have some agency, at least enough to stop a buffoon. Trump is about to prove that having a lot of money, and even leading in early polls, does not predict a victory,” writes Hans Noel, a Georgetown University political scientist, at the Mischiefs of Faction political blog.

Of course, most of the GOP establishment loathed Trump already. Trump’s attack on McCain simply confirmed this view. The real question isn’t whether the party will now turn against Trump. It’s whether his polls will begin to decline.

Past patterns say they should. In recent races fringe candidates (in the GOP in particular) have shot up as voters discovered them. They have a brief period of glory as the front-runner. Think former Rep. Michele Bachmann, pizza executive Herman Cain, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Then they decline. The media begins to treat them differently once they reach the top of the poll mountaintop. There’s much more extensive scrutiny of their record. Their comments are covered more intensively. The public perhaps discovers what they’re really like. Voters grow disenchanted.

“Donald Trump’s surge in the polls has followed the classic pattern of a media-driven surge. Now it will most likely follow the classic pattern of a party-backed decline,” writes polling expert Nate Cohn at The Upshot blog of The New York Times.

Trump himself isn’t backing down. That’s unsurprising for a guy who’s centered his political appeal on blunt talk. He is trying a neat slide step, however, in which he moves the debate from McCain’s Vietnam service to his record on immigration. Immigration is an issue that appears to be working for Trump so far, despite the backlash to his description of most Mexican undocumented workers as “rapists” and “criminals.”

“The reality is that John McCain the politician has made America less safe, sent our brave soldiers into wrong-headed foreign adventures, covered up for President Obama with the VA scandal and has spent most of his time in the Senate pushing amnesty,” Trump writes today in a USA Today double-down opinion piece. “He would rather protect the Iraqi border than Arizona’s.”

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