Just the day after he doubled down on his assertion that he could order the U.S. military to violate the laws of war by committing torture and murdering enemies’ families, and that he would be obeyed because he’s such a great leader, Donald Trump backed off, without of course admitting that he’d be wrong.

Of course that’s good news. Anything  that reminds people that war – and politics – are contests within rules is, to that extent, valuable. The worst thing among many bad things about Trump his consistent message that the rules only apply to “losers” and “p*ssies.”

Why did he do it? After all, backing off is not Trump’s strong suit (though neither is consistency). It’s impossible to be sure at a distance, but my guess is that he was told by people he has to listen to that – while he can get away with a lot – he couldn’t get away with dissing the military. Perhaps the combination of the letter by 25 Republican-foreign-policy Establishment figures, the furious denunciation by Mitt Romney, and the fairly harsh words from John McCain finally sunk in, though all of those took place before the debate.

Hudathunkit? Looks as if The Donald might be minimally educable after all. Of course that doesn’t make him fit to be President, but it suggests that limits still apply. That’s a relief.

Update Kevin Drum offers a more cynical take: Trump was relying on the fact that masses of people would see and hear him acting tough while much smaller numbers – but including members of elites he needs to please – would read about the retraction. That makes him a winner both ways. The only sure thing about the 2016 election is that the more cynical interpretation is likely to be the correct one.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.