The first question to Chris Christie was about the nine credit downgrades that New Jersey had suffered since he became its governor.Ben Carson was reminded of his domestic-policy blunders, of his foreign-policy blunders, of a whole raft of loopy statements that raise serious questions about how well he understands the country and globe. Could he reassure voters?And Donald Trump had to listen obediently, even meekly, as Megyn Kelly—the one woman on Fox News’s panel of three debate moderators—recited a squirm-inducing litany of his misogynistic remarks through time.
This wasn’t a debate, at least not like most of those I’ve seen. This was an inquisition.
On Thursday night in Cleveland, the Fox News moderators did what only Fox News moderators could have done, because the representatives of any other network would have been accused of pro-Democratic partisanship.They took each of the 10 Republicans onstage to task. They held each of them to account. They made each address the most prominent blemishes on his record, the most profound apprehensions that voters feel about him, the greatest vulnerability that he has.
It compels me to write a cluster of words I never imagined writing: hooray for Fox News.
Fox accomplished something important. It prevented the Republican contenders from relying on sound bites and hewing to scripts that say less about their talents and more about the labors of their well-paid handlers.
And the questions that the moderators asked weren’t just discomfiting, humiliating ones. They were the right ones, starting with a brilliant opener: Was there any candidate who was unwilling to pledge support to the eventual Republican nominee and swear off a third-party run?Trump alone wouldn’t make those promises, even though the moderator who asked that question, Bret Baier, pointed out that such a third-party run would likely hand the presidency to the Democratic nominee.And thus, in the first minute of the debate, Trump was undressed and unmasked, and he stood there as the unprincipled, naked egomaniac that he is. He never quite recovered. His admission of political infidelity was the prism through which all of his subsequent bluster had to be viewed.
All in all, the large number of candidates made it difficult for anyone to stand out much, so it’s impossible to come up with any sweeping, definitive list of winners and losers.
I do think that Trump lost: He said nothing, not one syllable, that infused his candidacy with any of the gravitas that it sorely needs, and there was something pouty and petulant about his whole performance. Some of his rivals managed, even under the Fox fire, to look grateful to be there and to enjoy themselves, at least a bit. Marco Rubio did.I also think that Ted Cruz lost, inasmuch as I forgot he was there for most of the debate. I also lost track of Carson, up until a surprisingly charming closing statement, and of Mike Huckabee, until his hilarious conflation of Trump and Clinton at the very end.Jeb Bush avoided any gaffes and discovered a bit of the spark that he often lacks. John Kasich charted a humane midcourse for Republicans trying to reconcile personal misgivings over same-sex marriage with how the Supreme Court has ruled. Will it do him any favors with Republican primary voters? Maybe not. But he sounded like a leader, and he sounded like a decent man.Trump was also pressed to defend his many corporate bankruptcies. Bush was pressed to explain his inability months ago to say whether, knowing all that we know now, he would have invaded Iraq. Cruz was pressed about his famously obnoxious demeanor on Capitol Hill.Scott Walker was pressed on job creation in Wisconsin, which isn’t all that he claims it to be.“Given your record in Wisconsin, why should voters believe you?” said Chris Wallace, the third Fox moderator. We shouldn’t.
The thought of any of these men other than perhaps Kasich in the White House is down right frightening.