One man won last night’s Republican presidential debate, and that man is Roger Ailes, whose Fox News chose the winners, batted around the second team, and told all of the candidates what the right answers were. If his employees don’t wind up picking the party’s nominee, it won’t be for lack of trying.
They also, it must be said, gave America some good television. But the candidates in the first, 5 p.m. debate can’t have taken much solace in that.
After Fox relegated them to second-tier status based on polling, its moderators then led off with questions about, yes, polling. At this point in the campaign, that polling is mainly a function of the fact that many Americans have never even heard some of these candidates. So, having deprived them of the exposure that would give them the chance to get better known, let’s pepper them with questions about why that's not happening? Yes, that’s what happened, and each of the B Team candidates began the evening with a question about why he or she wasn’t doing better:
Moderator Martha MacCallum asked former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina about her comment that “Margaret Thatcher was not content to manage a great nation in decline, and neither am I.”
“Given your standing in the polls,” MacCallum asked, “is the ‘Iron Lady’ comparison a stretch?”
She likewise asked Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to account for polling that showed him losing to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in his home state, and observed to former Texas Governor Rick Perry, in a sentence with no question mark, that Trump sure was besting him: “Given the large disparity in your poll numbers, he seems to be getting the better of you.”
Her co-moderator, Bill Hemmer, put the state of play this way to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses and 10 other states in 2012: “Has your moment passed, Senator?”
MacCallum in particular tried hard to elicit certain answers from the candidates, and told South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham that with 45 million Americans on food stamps and 9 million on disability, “there is an increasing willingness in this country to accept assistance. How do you get Americans who are able to take the job instead of a handout?”
When Graham didn’t see it that way—he answered that “Americans are dying to work,” then explained how he’d help them do that—she objected, and moving on to Santorum, said, “Let’s get back to the question at hand, which is whether or not Americans have become too reliant on assistance, or too willing to take assistance. Do you believe we need to change the culture in this country, in terms of whether or not we should be encouraging people to get off of it and take the job when it’s available?”
Hemmer either signaled his own views on immigration or is contractually required to refer to undocumented immigrants as “illegals.”
The questions in the second, prime-time debate were more interesting, but were not any less heavy-handed, and were not exactly handed out evenly, either.
The two toughest by far went to Donald Trump. First, a show of hands from those who could not promise—talking to you and only you, El Donaldo—that he would not run as a third-party candidate. When Trump raised his hand, signaling that he could promise no such thing, moderator Bret Baier tried to get him to change his mind: “To be clear, you’re standing on a Republican primary…”
“I understand,” Trump said, and clearly did.
“The place where the RNC will give the nominee the nod,” Baier persisted.
“I fully understand,” Trump said again, but Baier kept at him: “And the experts say an independent run would almost certainly hand the race over to Democrats and likely another Clinton,” yet “you can’t say tonight that you could make that pledge?” No, said Trump.
Later, moderator Megyn Kelly asked Trump about some of the insulting things he’s said about women over the years: “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals…” She did, it’s true, undercut the effect of the stern question by looking like she was struggling not to burst out laughing at his initial answer: “Only Rosie O’Donnell.”
Only Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker got another question half that tough, when Kelly asked about his opposition to abortion even to protect the life of the mother. “Would you really let a mother die?” she asked him.
The others got pretty unsurprising policy questions, and instead of serving up the promised “doozies” that he’d bragged about to the Washington Post, moderator Chris Wallace instead asked former Florida Governor Jeb Bush a question that was not only a softball but a waste, since the answer is well known: Do you stand by your support of earned legal status for immigrants? (Yes.)
And the toughest question for Ohio Governor John Kasich, who throughout the night got plenty of love from the home-team crowd in Cleveland, actually set him up for his best answer: “You defended your Medicaid expansion by invoking God,” Kelly told him, “saying to skeptics that when they arrive in Heaven, Saint Peter isn’t going to ask them how small they’ve kept government, but what they have done for the poor. Why should Republican voters, who generally want to shrink government, believe you won’t use your Saint Peter rationale to expand every government program?”
In answer, Kasich noted that Reagan had also expanded Medicaid several times, then explained how Ohio had used that money to treat mentally ill and the addicts who cost taxpayers a lot more in the prisons they’re filling than they do getting the care they need. “We brought a program in here to help people get on their feet, and you know what, everybody has a right to their God-given purpose,” he said, tossing in a few job growth stats as his time ran out and the crowd cheered.
The final question, received over Facebook, the debate’s co-sponsor, was, “I want to know if any of them have received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first.” But somehow, Kelly never got around to asking Trump, as she did Texas Senator Ted Cruz, “Any word from God?”
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