This was not a normal presidential candidate debate. The Republican National Committee may have wanted one, and as of a few months ago, the political world may have expected one, but even before the top 10 GOP candidates reached the stage in Ohio last night, it was painfully obvious there was nothing “normal” about any of this.
After all, national polling shows a former reality-show celebrity with a double-digit lead over his Republican rivals, guaranteeing an even greater spectacle, while simultaneously creating an almost ridiculous dynamic: a debate literally and figuratively centered around Donald Trump.
Indeed, in practical terms, arguably the most newsworthy exchange came in the debate’s first minutes, when Fox’s Bret Baier posed a question designed specifically to put Trump on the spot.
BAIER: Gentlemen, we know how much you love hand-raising questions. So we promise, this is the only one tonight: the only one. Is there anyone on stage, and can I see hands, who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person. Again, we’re looking for you to raise your hand now – raise your hand now if you won’t make that pledge tonight.
Trump, who’s repeatedly raised the prospect of a third-party campaign, raised his hand, drawing audience boos. He added, “If I’m the nominee, I will pledge I will not run as an independent,” which was unintentionally funny, but didn’t seem to impress anyone.
But notice what happened the next time Trump was in the spotlight. Fox’s Megyn Kelly asked the candidate, “Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women. You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals.’”
Trump quickly interjected, “Only Rosie O’Donnell.”
For many viewers, it was an ugly and offensive moment, but the audience that had booed Trump minutes earlier seemed to love it. Trump was back on track – the Caricature Candidate was putting on the show that has propelled him to the front of the pack, condemning “political correctness” and basking in the warm applause of entertained voters.
Going into the debate, one of the key questions was which Republican would try to take Trump down. The answer, oddly enough, was Fox News.
I’ll concede that debate analysis is a bit like art analysis: quality is in the eye of the beholder. Two political experts could sit next to one another, watch the same event, and come away with wildly divergent assessments about who thrived and who flopped.
The Trump factor complicates matters further – it’s challenging for many of us to relate to his partisan appeal, which makes it that much more difficult to know whether Republican primary voters are growing weary of his antics or swooning in even greater numbers.
But if Fox hoped to use last night’s debate to take the inexplicable frontrunner down a peg, I think the network probably missed.
As for the rest of the field, here are some takeaways from my notes:
Jeb Bush: The GOP establishment must be feeling antsy right about now about the former governor’s consistently lackluster performances. Asked early on about his family, Bush said, “I’ve got a record in Florida. I’m proud of my dad, and I’m certainly proud of my brother. In Florida, they called me Jeb, because I earned it.” Maybe they called you Jeb because it’s the name you told everyone to call you?
Scott Walker: If last night was an important opportunity for the Wisconsin governor, he missed it. He had very little to say when asked about the Black Live Matter movement, and when asked, “Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion?” Walker simply stuck to his “pro-life” talking points – effectively answering, “Yes.”
Ben Carson: Apparently, the retired neurosurgeon is comfortable with torture. He also complained about “the Alinsky Model, taking advantage of useful idiots,” which will probably endear him to some odd right-wing bloggers.
Rand Paul: He doesn’t appear to like Chris Christie very much.
Chris Christie: He doesn’t appear to like Rand Paul very much.
Marco Rubio: Much of the political class seems to think the Florida senator excelled last night. I’m not sure why – he presents policy gibberish in a pleasant enough way, but his attempts at wonkery are hollow. What’s more, while Republicans had earlier tried to criticize Hillary Clinton by saying the presidency is no place for on-the-job training, Rubio told the audience, “[I]f this election is a resume competition, then Hillary Clinton’s going to be the next president.” In other words, Rubio sees Clinton as the most qualified candidate running this cycle. Good to know.
Mike Huckabee: The right-wing Arkansan wants to tax “pimps,” give constitutional rights to embryos, and defy Supreme Court rulings he doesn’t like.
Ted Cruz: The right-wing Texan seemed to get lost in a sea of nonsense last night. At one point, he suggested he can “defeat radical Islamic terrorism” through word-choice, which only served as a reminder of Cruz’s willingness to treat voters like fools.
John Kasich: The Ohio governor, playing to a hometown crowd, came across as knowledgeable and sincere, even offering an eloquent defense of the Affordable Care Act. Naturally, he’s doomed.
So, who won last night? It’s not even a close call: Hillary Clinton.