The big winner in last night’s “big boy” (top ten Republicans in polls, all male) debate was Fox News itself. While the network isn’t my default choice, the moderators, stalwart defenders of Republican orthodoxy, and the format wrung the most out of the sometimes unruly lot and provided some illuminating moments. Megyn Kelly, flanked by Chris Wallace and Brett Baier, shone. The questions were well prepared, hard-hitting and customized for the candidates. There was enough give and take between and among the candidates to be lively, but the moderators never lost control.
One can only wonder how many voters were turned off by Kelly’s contretemps with Donald Trump, questioning whether his degrading misogynistic comments about women reflected a temperament ill suited to the Presidency. Trump has called women “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs,” and “disgusting animals.” He said he doesn’t have time for political correctness. In his post-debate tweets, he dismissed Kelly as a “bimbo,” which she most assuredly is not. My fear is that, among the growing legion Trump supporters, this kind of language and attitude is a plus.
Sour-faced Trump served up other red meat, attacking the press and indiscriminately asserting all “our leaders are “stupid, our politicians are stupid.” His rants were slightly tamer than his anti-immigrant and other comments prior to the debate. He was the center of attention throughout, and his opponents appeared, for the most part, wary of alienating his supporters. A key Trump moment came in the first minutes of the debate when he was the only candidate to raise his hand to indicate he would not pledge not to run as a third-party candidate if he failed to get the party’s nomination. That didn’t play well in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, the site of the 2016 Republican National Convention, but you had to give him credit for consistency.
Another winner last night was the concept of a governor for President. The candidates with executive experience can, in general, present more forcefully about what they have accomplished in the real world and what, therefore, one might expect of them as President. This is especially true of Ohio Governor John Kasich, who just made the cut. He touted his expanded support for education and defended using Medicaid to increase access to health care. The most recent entrant in the race, he also served nine terms in the House of Representatives, where he chaired the House Budget Committee and was involved in defense issues. He also has spent eight years in the private sector. A winning Kasich comment, coming near the end of the debate, was that, while he opposes same sex marriage, he was pleased recently to attend the wedding of a gay friend and would still love his child if he or she were gay. Kasich is a candidate who shouldn’t be dismissed. If Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush falters, Kasich would be the natural inheritor of his more moderate supporters.
Bush did generally well, though he started out a bit slowly. His remarks were much smoother and more forceful than those during the Republican forum in New Hampshire earlier this week. He was able to put together a solid defense of his position on immigration, which has always been a source of complaint among Republicans to his right. While his performance didn’t hit it out of the park, he certainly got to second base. Not sure if he has the emotive range to win the nomination.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie got back to presenting himself as a governor with policy positions and a concrete record in office, rather than just the fattie who presided over Bridgegate. Florida Senator Marco Rubio is attractive and articulate but very scripted. He also seems young and relatively inexperienced, though I’m sure many observers embrace his cautionary note that the race “shouldn’t be a resume competition” because, if that were so, Hillary Clinton, who has had the longest record in public service, would be the certain winner. I started to think of a Kasich-Rubio ticket as potentially formidable.
Texas first-term Senator Ted Cruz, a Tea Party aficionado, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee played to their narrow ultra-conservative constituencies, with Huckabee the better debater of the two. First-term Senator Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist and self-styled “different kind of Republican,” took on Christie about government information gathering in general and the Patriot Act in particular. Libertarian Paul is opposed to a muscular foreign policy. It’s hard to see how he sells that to the Republican primary electorate and, in any event, didn’t present with the gravitas he might be assumed to possess. Nor, for that matter, did Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Ben Carson, a retired and reportedly gifted neurosurgeon, was quiet and out of his depth on the broad range of policy issues. He did provide one of the best lines of the evening however: “I’m the only one (on the stage) who has removed half a brain, though, if you went to Washington, you’d think someone beat me to it.”
At the earlier debate, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina surprised with her focused, poised, and pithy responses to most questions. She repeated her oft-stated remarks that she knows more world leaders than any candidate other than Hillary Clinton and added that she, Fiorina, has accomplished more in running a $90 billion company (which, by the way, fired her) than Clinton. Fiorina asserted that she would have done better at making an Iran deal than President Obama did. Texas Governor Rick Perry praised her as a skilled negotiator. Fiorina could well make it to the big table at the next debate. but I shudder at the image of either Perry or her negotiating a nuclear deal.
It was a compelling evening of politics. Fox deserves credit for taking it on and doing it so well this early in the process, when there are too many candidates, and most have yet to rise to the occasion. The debate audience was the highest ever for a non-sports event on basic cable, three times the audience for any previous primary debate. It was much more entertaining than watching the Red Sox lose again.
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