Over the past two nights, CNN staged town halls with the six remaining Republican candidates in conversation with Anderson Cooper and South Carolina GOP voters. These superb 45-minute one-on-one explorations were so thoughtful and instructive that they gave us an almost tragic glimpse of what might have been had this election cycle not turned into an unending psychotic break with political reality. The key moment last night came when Donald Trump was politely confronted by a South Carolina Republican activist named Oran Smith, who asked him to rethink his charge that George W. Bush knowingly used lies to lead America into war in Iraq. “I’m not gonna give you a —“ Trump said, without saying “answer.” Smith would not relent. Trump said a lot of people believe what he said. He said he’d have to go back and look at what he said. He repeated that he had been against the war in 2002 and 2003.
Then Anderson Cooper brought up the fact that BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski found a 2002 Howard Stern broadcast in which he said he was for the war. To which Trump responded he may have said that at the time, but it was the first time he was asked and he wasn’t a politician then. It was calm, it was not confrontational, but the question was not dropped. Trump could not maneuver or finagle his way out of it. Smith would not let him. It was all there — the lying, the deception, the self-aggrandizement.The information is out. Voters can now take it into account.
The “Bush lied” theme is problematic for Trump for a reason he and those who agree with him about it might not understand. By saying Bush lied and he knew it all along, he was essentially calling all Republicans who stoutly supported Bush against the charge throughout his presidency and beyond — calling them a bunch of boobs and fools who fell for a con. That’s not what those who supported Bush and the war believe about themselves, even though so many others believe it of them — and it’s doubtful they like hearing it from the mouth of a man who is seeking their vote. It’s not clear how many Republicans care about this to the extent Oran Smith does, but at least three polls this week in South Carolina either show a flattening of Trump’s support after Saturday’s debate or a decline.