First GOP Debate: Playing the Trump Card

GOP debate 2015

Images courtesy of Fox News

First GOP Debate: Playing the Trump Card
| published August 7, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

The jury remains out on the meaning of the first televised Republican presidential candidate debate held this week in Cleveland, Ohio, and hosted by Fox News. Though not a surprise, the narrative and the tone within the room was controlled by two dominant and inescapable factors—Fox News' unbounded love of its own theatrics and self-importance, and Donald Trump.

The 500-pound gorilla in the hall was, of course, businessman and TV personality Trump, now the leader in most GOP polls, and the front-runner in a field now crowded with some 17 candidates—so many candidates, that the bottom tier—or so-called Also-Ran-Seven—was forced by Fox News’ prearranged guidelines to participate in a kind of junior debate hours before the big show, an event which South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham called the Happy Hour Debate.

The likely untold story of the first of a half dozen major debates is this: it was neither Trump who controlled the room, nor his closest several competitors in the swollen field—former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, current Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. The tone and mood was set within the first few opening minutes by the patronizing and overtly theatrical antics of Fox News and its moderator’s ingratiating rapport with the candidates.

Megyn Kelly actually likened the process of ushering the candidates on stage to “herding cats,” and then—as they stood posing for news photographers and awkwardly enduring the moderators’ inane banter—asked if they were nervous. She also said that this first of many Presidential Debates was “like a sporting event…,” but oddly cut herself off before she could even complete the thought, as if she was not even familiar enough with “sports” to make the reductive metaphor work for laughs in the cavernous arena.

In fact, most attempts by moderators Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace to inject jokes and laughs into the proceedings fell stunningly flat, adding to an awkwardness in the room already amplified by the painfully obvious fact that Fox News was seeking the shortest path to fisticuffs, eye-gouging, and blood on the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena. Within the first 10 minutes of pre-debate banter, Fox News had more-or-less shattered what remains of the glass wall meant to separate “journalism” from “celebrity” by self-consciously overshadowing the candidates themselves.

But give Fox News its due: it attempted gamely to establish a firewall between front-runner Trump and the other nine candidates from the very first question, a “hand-raising” query by Bret Baier.

“I know you don’t like to do a show of hands,” Baier said, in advance of the first question, stressing that it would be the only time during the evening the candidates would be asked to raise their hands in response to an inquiry. Baier then went on to request a show of hands from anyone on the stage who would NOT pledge—unequivocally and in advance—to support whomever the Republican Party chooses to be its nominee, and further pledge to NOT run in any third party capacity in the 2016 general election.

Unbended, and unwilling to allow himself to become trapped by such a commitment, only Trump raised his hand. Amid many boos from the hall, Trump told Baier that he would not make any such pledge, and that he was running to be President regardless of party affiliation—though he did add the caveat that he would prefer to run as a Republican, not as an independent or a part of some third party effort.

Trump’s populism was in full view, and his theatrics kept both the moderators and the audience in Cleveland suitably entertained. And though there had been a pre-debate sense that most of the other candidates would attempt to avoid being drawn into confrontations with the boisterous and gregarious Trump, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul seized on Trump’s defiant refusal to commit to support the eventual nominee as prima facie evidence of Trump’s manipulative gamesmanship and the businessman’s lack of loyalty to the party and its principles.

Throughout the debate—in which Trump received the majority of question and answer time, nearly 12 total minutes as compared to Jeb Bush’s 8 minutes 45 seconds and John Kasich’s 6 minutes 52 seconds—the hotel owner and TV show host remained confoundedly unapologetic.

When confronted on his radically-shifting positions on abortion, he said he had merely changed his mind. When asked to explain his once-steadfast support of a single-payer health care system similar to Obamacare, Trump said he simply made the previous decisions based on the business climate of the day and contractual preferences. When confronted by his numerous business failures and bankruptcies, and the impact they had had on employees and stockholders, Trump called the moderators naïve and characterized his partners and investors as business-savvy realists and “killers.”

When Megyn Kelly recited a list of some of his past characterizations of women as hormonally imbalanced "disgusting animals," “fat pigs” and “ugly hogs,” Trump declared himself disinterested in political correctness, and even joked that his disparaging remarks had been aimed only at Rosie O’Donnell. When Trump was offered a chance to modify his language regarding his contention that the government of Mexico is deliberately infiltrating the United States with hardened criminals and drug dealers, Trump dug in his heels. When asked why he has given tens of millions of dollars in political donations to liberal groups and Democratic Party candidates, including several famously large gifts to Nancy Pelosi, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, Trump joked that it was to merely ensure that those politicians attended his wedding. He even raised the stakes, stressing that he gives large chunks of cash to politicians of all political stripes to purchase their loyalty on certain issues and business deals, and to guarantee a returned favor; in other words, he expects something in return.

Trump repeatedly diverted attention from his past indiscretions, bombastic comments, and off-color language by shifting the conversation back to his business acumen and his self-styled form of unvarnished truth-telling. As a result, Trump rarely came across as Presidential, by any definition or standard, though he clearly came across as the headline performance of the night.

But it was his refusal to pledge to support the GOP which sparked early outrage from at least one candidate, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Paul’s campaign progress has been shaky since he entered the race earlier this year, and his descent in some polls—analysts suggest—may be the direct result of Trump’s overwhelming presence in the field. Paul’s early strategy had been clear: position himself as a different kind of Republican, one who could shatter the template of the more cautious and traditional GOP front-runners. But Trump, who has drawn arguably the heaviest media attention during the last months, has—by some accounts—syphoned away the majority of non-traditional Republican support. Senator Paul barely made the cut to appear on stage with the other ten top tier candidates, and ironically received the least amount of response time—barely over 5 minutes worth, according to Politico.

Paul also clashed energetically with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over the issue of post-9/11 bulk-data collection—the process by which agencies like the NSA harvest and collate the data of American cell phone calls, text messages and emails as a tool to thwart potential terror plots against the U.S. Governor Christie supports the government’s ability to collect data using bulk tools; Paul opposes it as a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.

There were few surprises on policy specifics or political positions, and indeed other than Trump’s over-the-top comments on issues ranging from foreign affairs to border control, the other nine candidates stuck closely to the language they have already been using on the campaign trail. Attempts by the moderators to dislodge some candidates from their scripted responses generally failed to spark any interesting or revealing moments. When author and neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson was confronted with some of his past publicly-exposed misunderstandings on foreign policy (he once apparently misunderstood which countries were a part of NATO), Carson offered that he was a fast learner, and that few Presidents were expected to have total recall. When Bush was asked to explain his evolving positions on whether he agreed with the decision of his brother—then President George W. Bush—to invade Iraq, Bush acknowledged the personal and public complexity of the matter, but said that based on what we now know, he would not have urged the U.S. to go to war, fixing blame on inadequate and faulty intelligence. Jeb Bush instead diverted the conversation to ISIS, and how in the haste to remove U.S. troops from the region three years ago, a wide path was opened for extremist groups to emerge and coalesce into the Islamic State.

As expected, the governors on stage stressed their management chops and their skill at leveraging cooperation from sometimes hostile legislatures. The governors on the stage also spoke of jobs creation and balanced budgets during their tenures in their respective state capitals. The U.S. Senators on the stage stressed their Washington experience, while also reserving their right to be called outsiders. Both Paul, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, emphasized their maverick nature, their unusual paths through life, and their disdain for business as usual in Washington.

Stylistically, Carson differed from the generally fast-talking elected officials on the stage, who, because of the tight time limits on responses, often rushed through their comments. Carson was instead soft-spoken, careful with his wording, and while differential to the outsized egos of the political types at the other podiums, more apt to present himself effectively as a non-politician. Carson suffered, however, by the unfortunate reality of television—direct comparisons to the other “non-politician” in the arena made Carson perhaps too soft-spoken to generate any enthusiasm or energy. Also by way of comparison, Mike Huckabee used his disarming humor to his advantage in several exchanges, and gave his most forceful and emotional response when he suggested—on the topic of abortion—that the taking of the unborn was unconstitutional.

On some points all candidates found themselves in general agreement. All supported more direct and proactive action against ISIS and other extremists groups in the Middle East, though most stopped short of endorsing war. Most said they opposed the recent deal struck between the U.S. and several partner nations with Iran, and several characterized the nuclear deal as a terrible foreign policy event. All took time to attack Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner and the presumed opponent in 2016 of the GOP nominee.

Audience at the GOP Debate 2015 Many observers (including this writer; I watched the debate alongside Thursday Review features editor Earl Perkins) scored the surprise winners as Marco Rubio and John Kasich, both of whom performed well with tight, easily-digested responses, and clear language. Rubio’s only fault was the sometimes slick, overly-rehearsed feel of his answers, though his responses were nonetheless genuine and heartfelt, and his personal narrative compelling. Rubio avoided taking the bait when invited to attack his friend and mentor, Bush. But Rubio also inserted his oft-used mantra that the election of 2016 is an election about the future, not the past—ordnance aimed presumably at both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

Rubio may be a young man in a hurry, but his performance may have also convinced some traditionalists within the party that he can handle pressure and deliver the sort of punches that will help him go the distance with the well-funded, well-oiled Clinton machine.

Kasich was a surprise winner. Kasich scored big applause from the Cleveland audience for his comments on gay marriage and same sex relationships, saying that as an “old-fashioned guy” he could not endorse same sex marriage, but that as a Christian he still loved anyone he counted as friend, family or associate the same way, offering that he had even recently attended the wedding of a gay couple. Indeed, Kasich handled most other responses with graceful, easy charm and an uncanny ability to sound an optimistic theme—as Reaganesque in his delivery as anything anyone has seen up to this point. Kasich also benefitted somewhat from the hometown crowd, but he also dispelled the notion to TV viewers in Spokane, Skokie and Slidell that he somehow did not belong on the same stage with the heavies.

As for the pre-Trump front runners of Bush and Walker, well, the jury may also remain out for a while.

Jeb Bush seemed shaky and a bit nervous in the first couple of rounds, but he quickly gained his footing and assumed the role he would prefer to maintain—that of the responsible adult in the room. Bush’s body language, however—a ticky series of shoulder, arm and head jerks—may prove problematic in future debates; Bush has always preferred the part of the policy wonk and management problem-solver, and his proximity to Trump on stage (the two shared the center podium positions for their relative placement in the polls) helped to soften Bush’s occasional awkwardness. Bush brushed aside concerns by some Republicans—and many Democrats—about a dynastic succession, stressing his intention to run for President as his own man, and not as a creature in the shadow of his father or brother. Amazingly, Bush avoided being hammered by the nine others for his perceived infidelity to true conservative principle, or for his merely being the once-upon-a-time front-runner (think of how front-runner Mitt Romney was bludgeoned heartily by Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann and others, simply for being in the number one spot). The fact that the others were not lined up to take turns slugging him worked to his distinct advantage, and may have inadvertently added a touch of spray-on Teflon.

Oddly, Trump took very few direct hits from his competitors on the stage—aside from the opening exchange between Rand Paul and Trump on the question of Trump’s loyalty to party. Many of the candidates simply seemed unwilling to move into Trump’s space in the boxing ring—whether by pre-arranged design of the others’ debate prep teams, or out of fear of engaging Trump directly. Trump’s hardest hits came from Baier, Kelly and Wallace, who threw their best punches directly at The Donald’s face and body, but—not surprisingly—found that the blows glanced off. Though the Fox News moderators confronted Trump in truly fair and balanced ways on all points, Trump later said he felt mistreated by the hosts, especially by Megyn Kelly for her insistence that he answer to his frequent anti-female bombast.

Scott Walker, another tentative front runner (more-or-less in the same boat with Bush), delivered a performance both subdued and level-headed, and free of mistakes. Walker stressed his survival skills in Wisconsin—battling back from a recall and later winning re-election despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent by outside groups. But Walker’s performance may have been too subdued; often, when the camera was focused on him, his responses seemed dry and colorless—a missed opportunity to strike out and differentiate himself from the field.

Social Security and its future solvency also provided some sparks on policy points. Chris Christie has proposed a 25-year plan to ratchet-up the retirement age in small increments, a plan which Huckabee differed with sharply. Huckabee proposed instead a restructuring of the tax code—what he calls a fair tax—to more effectively generate revenue for the government. Under Huckabee’s plan, tax revenue would be drawn more from spending and consumption, and less from income. Most of the candidates indicated that they would cut the size of government, but offered few specifics—even after one moderator pointed out that despite frequent campaign rhetoric by presidential candidates spanning the last 40 years, the size of government never decreases and spending generally increases.

Trump’s gregariousness and antics, as expected, captured most of the attention. Under typical circumstances, Trump’s politically-incorrect statements and his outright insults lobbed at other well-known and well-respected individuals would have initiated a swift implosion—likely weeks before that first debate in Cleveland. But this is anything but a typical election cycle, and Trump is no ordinary candidate—even in the populist role he seems to be playing. Only Trump could convert an insult about John McCain’s war record into a campaign plus, and only Trump could make useful mileage out of his disparaging comments about Latinos. Then again, only Trump could make it some kind of badge of honor that he has successfully manipulated bankruptcy laws so that a half dozen of his various business ventures could go belly-up while still keeping his personal fortune intact.

On the whole, the first debate proved to be something of a raucous spectacle, though without any major surprises or gaffes (we will discount anything Trump says, no matter how outrageous, since he considers himself immune to the toxic aftereffects of his sometimes boisterous comments). There have been plenty of sound bites, already replayed innumerable times throughout the night and all day Friday on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Those tuning in last night for outright gaffes or malapropisms were disappointed—no one misplaced Poland, no one compared themselves to John F. Kennedy, and no one glanced at their wristwatch.

Which brings us to the element of time: former top contenders Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee probably just want Trump to go away. In a race dominated by every scrap of news about Trump, the differences between what were once the party’s traditional favorites seem quaint and almost irrelevant. Remember that time less than one year ago when the race was still viewed in terms of economic conservatives versus foreign policy hawks versus evangelical conservatives? For Bush, Walker, Rubio, Paul, et al, time is running short to set in motion the Republican Party’s optimistic plan to recapture the White House in 2016.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Immigration Was Hot Topic at New Hampshire Forum; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 4, 2015.

Grudge Match: Trump Vs. McCain; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 19, 2015.