Fox TV moderators exposed Donald Trump as the turd in the Republican punch bowl in the first minute of last night’s debate, forcing him to acknowledge he might decide to run for president as an independent.
Asking 10 candidates to raise their hand only if they would not commit to supporting the GOP candidate was a brilliant journalistic gambit, which not only had the benefit of making news, but also of hosing down Trump and his lofty poll ratings from the first minute of the two-hour event –without any of his rivals laying a glove on him.
By the time it was over, it looked to us as if Trumpism — a toxic mixture of malevolence, testosterone and narcissism masquerading as a political world view – was already in decline. A look at the night’s winners, who did themselves some good, and losers, who either blew it or didn’t do anything to advance their cause:
Marco Rubio – The Florida Senator hit the first question of the night out of the park, as he cast the election in an entirely different light from all the others, framing it as a past vs. future dynamic. For the rest of the debate, he remained earnest, engaging, smart and well-briefed, but the problem was that he never got around to taking a single position that every other conservative since Ronald Reagan died hasn’t already taken.
Jeb Bush – On the stage, Bush looked by far the most presidential of the field and acquitted himself coolly, competently and intelligently on the tough questions Fox’s Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace asked him about being a squish. With lunatics braying all around him, he modeled the value of civility without having to talk about it, and his defense of his support for Common Core standards – and his erudition on education issues – were first-rate.
John Kasich – The Ohio governor got a boost from the hometown crowd, but his defense of funding Medicaid through Obamacare was brilliant, and his feel-good, Jack Kemp pro-growth chops were strong. He was the only one who spoke up for the poor, the weak and the sick, and, in a GOP primary fight, that’s probably enough to do him in. His statement that he’d love his daughter no matter her sexual orientation was actually poignant.
Mike Huckabee – While the Huckster looks decrepit, his critique of President Obama’s Iran deal – “We got nothing, and Iran gets everything they want” – nicely captured the case against the proposed treaty, as Frank Luntz’s inevitable focus group showed. His defense of Ma and Pa against Chris Christie’s plan to mess around with their Social Security wasn’t all that substantive, but when it’s Social Security we’re talking about, it doesn’t need to be.
Ben Carson – Everybody’s favorite neurologist in the field is no doubt running for book sales, a Fox Show and his brand, but he got off the best line of the night. “I’m the only one to separate Siamese twins, the only one to operate on babies while they’re still in their mother’s womb,” he said. “The only one to take out half of a brain, although you would think if you go to Washington that someone had beat me to it.”
Diplomacy – Whatever else you can say about this crowd, they’re not about to give peace a chance. With the slight exception of Rand Paul, everyone thundered manly-man lines about the need to “build up our military,” increase the size of standing armies and use belligerence as the first and only tool of foreign policy. Shamefully, none of them even thought to mention taking care of current U.S. wounded veterans, until an audience member reminded Kelly about it during a break.
Trump – After getting pantsed at the start of the debate, Trump proceeded swiftly to make things worse. When Kelly confronted him with a batch of his past sexist-and-beyond tweets and statements — “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals” — he first tried to say he only was talking about comic Rosie O’Donnell – heh, heh – then lashed out the Goddess of Fox News herself, before insulting the audience a few minutes later. In between there somewhere, he also confessed to bribing elected officials and said he changed his mind about abortion when friends of his decided to have a child after agonizing over where to let the pregnancy continue – and the kid turned out to be “a superstar.” Of course.
Scott Walker – For the guy who is supposed to be the big bad conservative foil to Bush, Walker turned in a pretty pedestrian performance. His debate prep trick of touching a finger each time he called off a bullet point was forced and cheesy – I’m been studying! – and his habit of nodding sagely behind Carson while on camera when the doc opened his mouth got old quick. As Brit Hume put it, “no runs, no hits, no errors.” Now that’s leadership!
Rand Paul – Paul looked pasty white and that little poodle job on top of his head may be au courant in Kentucky, but jaysus man, get a real haircut. All that aside, he came across as arrogant and condescending, with little reason to be either, and even managed to ruin a strong move during his sharp exchange with Chris Christie over NSA data collection by rolling his eyes and smirking while the New Jersey governor was talking about attending 9/11 funerals.
Chris Christie – Christie had some not-too-bad moments, but his first outing on the national stage was just: meh. His defense of the lousy economy in New Jersey was weak – “you should have seen it when I got there” (why am the only one laughing?) – his dissection of Social Security was bloodless and his yammering about what a tough guy he is was plain wheezy. We won’t even mention his hairdo, which looked like he’d just come from a “Jersey Boys”-themed debate watch party.
Ted Cruz – Why do they keep saying this guy is some kind of great debater? The third member of the Bad Haircut Club, he sounds like somebody haranguing about Revelations on AM radio while you’re driving through Barstow. He better hope Trump deflates fast, ‘cuz it’s hard to imagine him being anyone’s first choice.
Women – A debate’s worth of Taliban-style thundering about abortion rights was just about what you’d expect, but the worst part of the evening came after the early under card, when GOP voters, pundits and consultants began exalting Carly Fiorina as a great politician, in response to her fine work establishing her brand as a loathsome, arrogant reactionary. Must be because she’s the only woman candidate Republicans have ever seen, except Sarah Palin.