Usually during a presidential campaign, if you ask an ambitious member of a political party if their party's presidential nominee has the judgment and temperament to be president you will get a brisk answer. The Republican will say, "Yes." The Democrat, too.
But the Republican Party is not having a traditional presidential campaign. Even simple questions get tricky fast. Some of the key Republicans supporting Donald Trump and planning to stand up for him at his convention cannot testify to his fitness for the job. They hope the quality of his campaign will prove he's ready for the presidency, but campaigns don't offer many opportunities to answer such fundamental questions.
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I asked Sen. Marco Rubio on "Face the Nation" whether he thought Donald Trump had the better character and judgment when compared to Hillary Clinton. "That's the challenge Donald has over the next two, three months," he said. "That's what I'm going to watch now. I know Donald as a primary candidate trying to stand out in a field of 17 people. He is now the Republican nominee. And he's going to have the next three months to go out and make the argument to the American people and help us envision him as president. And these are the kinds of issues that he's going to have to earn people's trust."
Rubio peppered Trump during the primary. He called him a "con man" and said he didn't trust him with the nuclear codes. Still, he is supporting him for president. Rubio wouldn't express the same nuclear codes fear about Hillary Clinton. Another novelty: even if a politicians are coy about their party's nominee, they can usually agree that the alternative is worse.
In his answer, Rubio talked about Trump as a primary candidate who needed to get noticed, and he suggested his previous judgments about Trump may have been incomplete because they took place during the primary, when Trump was only "trying to stand out." But Donald Trump has now been the presumptive nominee for two months, and much of the criticism about him has come during that period when he faced no opposition, and all the pressure was from party types asking him not to stand out so much.
On ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopolus," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used Rubio's formulation to answer a similar question. Asked if Donald Trump was qualified to be president, the Senate Majority Leader said it was up to the voters. Trump had to demonstrate his qualifications before November.
Should these questions of fitness be a mystery after Trump ran one of the most successful primary campaigns in history? Donald Trump has been more forthcoming about his views and character than any modern candidate. For allies to demur when asked about his qualifications after he has presented himself so thoroughly is extraordinary.
At one time, Bernie Sanders suggested Hillary Clinton was not qualified, but the circumstances were different. It was in the heat of the primary campaign, and he back-tracked almost immediately. McConnell and Rubio support Trump. These answers put them in a twilight zone. If you support a candidate, shouldn't that mean that you've already determined that he hits the threshold of being qualified to be president? There is a mountain of political pressure for members of a party to support their nominee, so this reluctance to simply assert Trump is qualified suggests pretty big doubts.
Trump's reluctant supporters did hint at how the candidate could improve in their eyes. Rubio said Trump's recent speech about Hillary Clinton had been his best. He said it addressed some of the worries he says he has about Trump's candidacy. "I think exposing Hillary Clinton and the fact that, you know, these arguments that people have-- I think we have to remind ourselves Donald is not running again George Washington or Abraham Lincoln here," said Rubio. "He's running against Hillary Clinton, someone who has incredible ethical issues that need to be examined."
There was fresh evidence of those issues this week when the Associated Press reported Clinton did not turn over an email that raised concerns about her home server. "Let's get separate address or device but I don't want any risk of the personal being accessible," she wrote in November 2010 to top aide Huma Abidin. The email undercuts Clinton's claim that she had a private account for convenience reasons and raises issues about what other emails she might have deleted that were work-related.
Mitch McConnell said that he was encouraged recently when Trump became more disciplined on the campaign trail. "He's beginning to use a prepared script more often, which I think is absolutely appropriate for any candidate," said the senate majority leader. The irony here is that McConnell is citing a talent that Trump has said should disqualify a candidate. "I always believed that when you run for president of the United States, it should be illegal to read off a teleprompter," he said in Gulfport, Mississippi. "Because all you're doing is reading someone else's words to people."
Rubio and McConnell are listing campaign improvements, not character improvements (even as campaign improvements go, these are underwhelming -- attacking the opponent and reading a teleprompter). When a person cites tactical improvements in response to questions about temperament, character, judgment and qualifications, it suggests the cupboard is bare or that they are trying to substitute superficial qualities for deeper ones.
If the campaign of 2016 turns out to be a nasty exchange of charge and counter-charge, there may not be a lot of opportunities for Donald Trump to genuinely address these fears. It would be one more amazing turn if ambitious politicians supporting a party nominee voted for him and still couldn't answer these questions readily.