Last week, Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana called on both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to apologize for offending military families. The reason he asked Trump to apologize seemed clear. Why he asked the same of Clinton was not immediately obvious. Perhaps it was because she is running against Trump.
It's Clinton's fault this whole thing started, anyway. One of the speakers at the Democratic National Convention two weeks ago was Khizr Khan, whose son, Captain Humayun Khan, was killed in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Standing at the podium with his wife, Ghazala, the elder Khan lambasted Trump for his bigoted remarks about Muslims.
"You have sacrificed nothing and no one," Khan said. It was a powerful moment that would have chastened almost anyone. Unfortunately, the man to whom he directed his remarks is an egomaniac.
Trump spent much of last week retaliating against the Khans in the press, first implying that Ghazala did not speak because, as a Muslim woman, she wasn't allowed. After this remark put him further in the hole, Trump tried to dig his way out, complaining Khan had "viciously" attacked him first. It was a bad look: the Republican nominee for president criticizing the parents of an American soldier killed in battle, by doubling down on his crusade against the world's second-largest religion.
This donnybrook put Montana's sole delegate to the U.S. House in a tough spot. Trump was obviously in the wrong, and the unimpeachable dignity of military service is kind of Zinke's whole thing. He could not tacitly endorse Trump's remarks. But Zinke is also a team player. As a freshman representative, he has to be careful when and how he bucks his party. Encouraged to unreasonable behavior by these reasonable concerns, he released on his campaign website a baffling statement:
"Both of our candidates for president have picked fights with and said extremely regrettable things to the families of service members who paid the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our great nation. As a grateful nation, we cannot allow this to become the norm, and we cannot allow it to go without notice. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton should swallow their pride and apologize to the families and service members they have offended. Politics has no role in the military."
That last sentence should provoke some snickering from the back. Politics has no role in the military, sure, but we're talking about the role of the military in politics—the basis for Zinke's career. Fortunately, that mild hypocrisy was overshadowed by a startling false equivalence. What did Clinton do to offend military families for which she should also apologize?
As the junior senator from New York, Clinton voted to invade Iraq in 2003. Were it not for that disastrous war of choice, Captain Khan might be alive today. But that's not what Zinke was referring to. Perhaps he meant the attack on the American consulate in Libya known to Republicans by a single, magic word: Benghazi. But even if you reject the multiple congressional investigations that absolved Clinton of wrongdoing in that tragedy, it happened four years ago. What would prompt Zinke to demand an apology now, the same week his party's candidate immolated himself in the press?
The answer seems kind of depressing: Trump struck at the values he holds most dear, but Zinke still wants him to beat Clinton. Here's a more difficult question: Why? Why does a politician with sterling credibility on the one issue Americans across the spectrum agree upon—military service—need to jeopardize that credibility for his party's nominee?
It's not as though Trump offers loyalty in return. Even as he fell on his sword attacking the Khans, the Republican nominee refused for days to endorse Speaker Paul Ryan. Many prominent Republicans still don't support Trump, and those who do are not likely to remain his fans after this election, because he will probably lose. Three months from now, doing what it takes to help him become president will seem like rescuing the beanbag chair from a burning house.
Meanwhile, Zinke is one of the few Republicans with a fireproof suit. The collapse of the GOP under the leadership of a reality television star will undoubtedly take some careers with it, but not his. He has his own brand. Why tarnish it for a man who is morally reprehensible and politically doomed?
Zinke's loyalty to his party is commendable, I guess. But sometimes the best way to stay loyal is to be critical. Trump deserves criticism for his bigotry and his stupid attacks on the Khans. I'm not sure Clinton deserves the same criticism for running against him. She has plenty of reasons to apologize to the families of dead servicemen, but the Republican nominee's blunder isn't one of them.
Dan Brooks writes about people, politics, culture and equivocation at combatblog.net.