The Washington Post’s political gossip column ‘The Fix” sums up The Hunger Games GOP presidential primary debate last night perfectly for Twitter: “Full of sound, fury and Trump, signifying little. Thursday’s debate was hugely entertaining. We learned almost nothing.”
Put another way: Trump did Trump. The nine other men on that stage doubled down on their established, political personas and expected patterns. It was new to many viewers. And it could affect the polls accordingly. But by night’s end we didn’t learn much.
Truer words were never spoken.
The debate didn’t start out that way. The puritanical high priests of conservative orthodoxy, FAUX News, hosting the debate clearly had an inquisition of Donald Trump in mind. Lindsey Graham: Trump questions were an ‘inquisition,’ not a debate.
The Fix analysis:
At the outset, Fox News’s Bret Baier asked all the candidates whether they would pledge to ultimately support the Republican nominee and refrain from running as an independent if the Republican nomination went to someone else. Trump gave a big shrug. Trump will support the nominee if that nominee is Trump, he said; he couldn’t guarantee anything beyond that.
Ultimately, what the collection of eight experienced public servants, along with Trump and retired surgeon Ben Carson, also proved Thursday evening is precisely why Trump has not just the lead but a solid hold of a lot of voter energy. There was an awful lot proffered in the main debate that could have and has been said before. There was not much in the way of policy specifics, big or new ideas. And there certainly wasn’t a move towards the kind of data and detail that debate experts said would be the key to besting Trump — or, at least, rattling him.
Trump is a master of performance art with sub-specialty in outrageous comments, while largely saying nothing at all. When he’s in rare form, Trump also puts himself near the center of all matters. And he certainly did that Thursday night.
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he said in response to a question about him having called certain famous women “pigs” and ugly. “I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico — both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”
And, of course, there was also this:
“If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even be talking about illegal immigration, Chris [Wallace]. You wouldn’t even be talking about it,” he said. “I said we need to build a wall, and it has to be built quickly. And I don’t mind having a big beautiful door in that wall so that people can come into this country legally.”
But what does any of that mean in terms of federal policy, actions that can and would be taken if Trump were in the Oval Office? And, is Trump aware that the wall thing has been discussed and attempted?
We don’t know, since the moderators (who were generally sharp and assertive and equipped with plenty of good, probing questions) — [Not everyone agrees with this: Alexandra Petri: Fox News’s aggressively idiotic questions] — nor the nine other men on stage, pressed the issue all that much. And while we know that most of the men on that stage are fans of Reagan, fans of small government and balanced budgets and economic growth, it’s unlikely many Americans came away from the debate with much in the way of specific policies that each would advance to address the issues that top the list of voter concerns.
None of that is to say that Trump’s still-forward-moving campaign is any less a circus than it was before. It’s just that, in this critical democratic exercise — the first of the primary debates — no one really did anything to take him down, much less take him out.
And if anyone came anywhere close at all but didn’t go over the edge, it was Donald Trump himself.
Washington Post political reporter, Dan Balz, agrees. The Donald remains on top — at least for the moment:
The first Republican debate of the 2016 campaign appeared to leave the nomination contest just as it was before.
Donald Trump brought to Thursday’s debate the same sharp tongue and controversial style that has propelled him to the top of the polls in the Republican race. He was outspoken, bombastic and unapologetic. He did exactly what he has been doing up to now, and it hasn’t hurt him yet.
From here forward, the others in the race might be forced to recalibrate their assessments of whether Trump is a comet flashing across the political skies or someone who eventually will have to be confronted directly in order to stop him.
The evening showed that the Republicans have a field of candidates potentially capable of stopping him. Trump stood out on Thursday by being Trump, but he did not really diminish the others on stage.
Anyone who thought a calmer, cooler — yes, more presidential — Trump would show up in Cleveland, as he had hinted in the days heading into the debate, was probably as surprised as they were earlier this summer when he left his rivals in the dust in poll after poll. Instead, Trump brought himself, although in doing so he seemed willing to test the potential limits of his appeal.
* * *
[Trump] also challenged his Fox News questioners. At one point he seemed to cross a line when he sarcastically responded to Megyn Kelly after she asked an unfriendly question that quoted some of the abusive language he has used to describe women. He later offered a tutorial to Chris Wallace about business and bankruptcy laws when Wallace asked him about the various times his company has declared bankruptcy.
Trump has defied political gravity throughout his brief candidacy, continuing to rise, for example, after he declared that he did not think Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was a POW during the Vietnam War, should be seen as a hero, saying he preferred people who didn’t get captured. Many of his opponents criticized him for that, just as they had for his comment that many illegal immigrants were rapists or drug dealers or murderers.
On Thursday night, they disagreed with him, but tentatively. Ohio Gov. John Kasich was asked about Trump’s comment about rapists and started by saying, “Donald Trump is hitting a nerve.”
The wealthy businessman and reality TV star was just one of 10 candidates on the stage. At times, he was a mere bystander to sharp exchanges and scintillating moments involving the others, including a tense and high-octane argument between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky about the balance between national security and civil liberties.
That exchange was by far the most arresting moment of the night, and it allowed each candidate to position himself exactly as he wanted to be positioned.
* * *
The debate came at a moment of considerable uncertainty about the Republican campaign. Trump’s surge upended everyone’s expectations. His rivals have been reluctant to change their own strategies in response, but he has forced them to ask whether their calculations of what would happen to him might need to be changed.
Trump’s presence obviously contributed most to all the hoopla, but it was more than just the Trump phenomenon that generated excitement. For many Republicans, it was a moment they have been anticipating for some time: an opportunity to take a measure of their leading candidates in a compare-and-contrast setting.
* * *
Historically, these early debates have proven to be more helpful for candidates to introduce themselves than for voters to draw conclusions.
But every debate counts in some way, even if it is because it does not fundamentally change the dynamic of the race. That appeared to be the case on Thursday. Trump committed no major mistakes. If he was overbearing at times, well, that has been part of his appeal. If he was impolitic at other times — bragging about buying access to politicians or taking personal advantage of the bankruptcy laws — he has done that before.
How long the Trump moment lasts is anybody’s guess. Those who hoped he would disappear quickly have been disappointed. Those who think he will yet fade away or blow himself up might still be proved correct. Those who fear for the party the longer he is a candidate have more to worry about.
There are any number of candidates who wait and hope to rise if he falls. But for now, Trump remains a force to be reckoned with.
I was somewhat surprised that FAUX News did not have Frank Luntz running one of those audience reaction instant tracking polls to discuss post-debate. We’ll have to wait for post-debate polling from the national pollsters. Tbere is going to be some shift in standing in the polls.
UPDATE: Think Progress has a good selection of debate analysis:
- The 8 Most Ridiculous Questions From The Fox News Early Debate
- Fox News Had Time To Ask The Candidates If They’ve ‘Received Word From God,’ But Not These 7 Topics
- What The GOP Candidates Meant When They Were Talking About God At Last Night’s Debate
- GOP Candidates Reveal Their Terrifying Fantasies About Abortion At First Debate
- Marco Rubio Forgets He Cosponsored Abortion Ban With Rape, Incest Exceptions
- Scott Walker Says In GOP Debate He Doesn’t Support Abortion If A Woman’s Life Is At Risk
- The Five Most Damaging Ideas GOP Candidates Have For Social Security
- First Fox Debate Included Repeated Questions On Islamic Terrorism, Zero On White Supremacist Attacks
- GOP Debate Spends Less Than A Minute On Police Violence And Black Lives Matter
Ed Kilgore at the Political Animal blog points out another FAUX News fail: The Big Dog That Didn’t Bark in the Republican Debate
Pop quiz: what’s the biggest strategic decision facing the Republican Party over the next two months? If you answered “whether to shut down the federal government over Planned Parenthood, climate change regs, immigration, Obamacare, or spending,” you get a gold star on your daily report and an extra dessert at lunch!
Now: know how often the Republican candidates last night were asked about this subject? That’s right: zero, nada, zilch, zen zen.
Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post’s fact checker has his work cut out for him. 2 debates, 20 fishy claims.