The GOP Debate: Trump Thumps and Thumped; Rubio, Kasich Gain

So little time, so much to do.

This was a momentous week in the world.  President Barack Obama gave a sharp, strong speech at American University scorning his critics and defending the treaty with Iran that would, he claimed, prevent Iran from ever getting a nuclear bomb. Jon Stewart retired from his own self-titled pioneering, one-of-a-kind political comedy show. 

Jennifer Aniston reportedly (via “Access Hollywood”) managed to get married to her very long-time fiancé, the actor Justin Theroux.

Oh, and the Republican Party held its first primary debate, featuring the top 10 candidates in the polls, on Fox News Channel in Cleveland, site of the 2016 GOP National Convention next summer.  You could call Thursday’s debate the Trump-a-thon, because so much of the world’s and the media’s attention was focused on mogul and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, before, during and after the debate.   

If you checked out the next-day coverage of the debate, you could get 50 different opinions about who had “won” the debate: Trump won by remaining Trump; Trump lost by remaining Trump. According to various views, Trump suffered self-inflicted wounds and imploded. Trump triumphed by never retreating, always repeating variations of his mantra of strength, building a wall, making America strong, bravado and bluster on a grand scale.  Many political strategists and commentators thought that among the big 10, the youthful Florida senator Marco Rubio had made the strongest impression—although he did it with making statements that sounded perilously closed to canned campaign speeches and slogans delivered in an emphatic style.

No grand (or detailed) policy  or ideological initiatives were offered, either by Trump or any of the other nine candidates, plus the junior debate held earlier featuring the seven candidates who did not make the cutoff.  By all accounts, businesswoman Carly Fiorina made a strong impression in that debate, which included the likes of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal , South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham and a host of formers: former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, former New York governor George Pataki, former Texas governor Rick Perry and former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore.

This was a GOP night—the party and Fox News, the network that prides itself on being your every-day American objective news organization without a hint of bias, showing off a strong and very, very large field of GOP candidates, all of whom were trying to keep their heads above the Trump tidal wave.

Even though this was a within-the-family debate, this was also still a Fox News debate, in the sense that the moderators—steady and disarming Chris Wallace, Bret Baier with his sharp inquisitor questioning, and Megyn Kelly, the network’s bright, blonde commentary supernova—had something of an agenda.

Trump’s astonishing rise in the polls without a noticeable lack of momentum in spite of outrageous gaffes that could have buried three campaigns have alarmed conservative establishment regulars, and Fox News, owned by Rupert Murdoch, is likely in that camp.  From the outset, the moderators seemed on a mission to put some holes in the Trump blimp, beginning with the loyalty oath opening question from Baier: “Is there anyone onstage—and can I see hands—who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican Party and pledge not to run an independent campaign against that person?”

Trump, after a due five-second consideration raised his hand. He was the only who did. Not only that but he refused to say that he would not engage in a third-party run, for which he was booed.

Things got worse when it was Kelly’s turn.  “You’ve called women you don’t like fat, pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,” she said. “Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Trump said.  As the question continued, he complained that he was not a political correct sort of guy and that it was all in fun.  But the question certainly stung. Witness to all the complaining tweets that emanated from Trump and his camp about Kelly afterward.  Kelly’s style is energetically wide-eyed, insistent, friendly and sharp—and straight for the jugular. The effect on her target often seems like someone being mauled in a dark alley by a very smart cheerleader.

When it came to Trump, the moderators often seemed like picadors jabbing at a bull.  Trump notoriously doesn’t take to attacks well. “You don’t like me,” he said of the audience. 

It wasn’t entirely clear whom the audience liked. There were lots of moments when that descended into reality-show politics, a zinger here, an impassioned plea there, and an almost unanimous response by all of the candidates that the United States should arm itself to the teeth, increase defense spending, enlarge the army, scrap the Iran nuclear deal, arm the Ukrainians and so on. That kind of spending clearly would bust the bank again as has the Iraq War.

The most funded candidate in the field, Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida whose father and brother have served as president of the United States, fared reasonably well, including once and for all agreeing that with current available information, his brother’s Iraq War was “a mistake.” 

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie once again showed himself to be something of a bully, when he and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul got into it on National Security spying on citizens and the Patriot Act. He probably scored points, but the visuals were something else—a vehement Rand, thin and frazzled and looking like an academic nerd being overpowered by Christie, who pushed on relentlessly like a high school football tackle.

Commentators seemed to like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the up-from-nothing young politician mired in the middle of the pack so far.  He was pointed, passionate and just a shade too slick and rehearsed with his zingers and comments, all of which sounded like sound bites for the campaign trail.  

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas put in his claim on being the true-blue, serious conservative among the candidates, although you’d think shutting down the government would be enough to burnish those credentials.  Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker mentioned his triumphs over teacher’s unions in his state every chance he got, but he adopted a less strident tone than in the past, foregoing his previous claims that his battles with the teachers unions were credentials for waging war against ISIS.

African American neurosurgeon Ben Carson said, when you’re working as a surgeon, “You don’t look at a person’s skin color.”  Ohio Gov. John Kasich showed off his credentials, an optimistic personality and a passion for inclusion, rare among the crew on the stage, going so far as to say that the party “should include and bring in those that are in the shadows.” 

In the end, this was still a Republican event, as it should be, and perhaps, so that both candidates and moderators behaved in ways that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Was Trump triumphant or blooded, even mortally wounded?  Probably neither.  He was in the end, entirely himself.   He remains a candidate who has neither filter or shame, which bodes trouble for the GOP and for himself.   On this performance, it could strike some observers that Trump did not implode, but that at some time, that’s exactly what will happen. The more interesting question is what he will do when that happens. 

As for the rest,  Rubio will probably go up a notch or two, and Kasich gained valuable visibility and performed well, as, apparently did Fiorina. Will the field be trimmed?  Probably although it is a long way to Tipperary before some of the candidates (17 and still counting) will realize that that voice they heard urging them to run was actually a cold caller.

Was  this—as the promos shouted—”the moment of truth”?  Truth at a political debate?  What could we be thinking?

It was more like a peek at the field, without any real revelation or revealing moments.  As a reality show, it was certainly better than “Big Brother”—or, dare we say it, “The Apprentice,” but not as good as “Dancing with the Stars” or “Shark Tank.” 

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