Most of the chatter before last night’s Republican Party presidential primary debate in Cleveland, Ohio was about Donald Trump: What would Trump say? How would Trump do? How would the other candidates react to Trump? It turned out, though, that Donald Trump was attacked more by the Fox News debate moderators than by his competitors.
Fox’s Megyn Kelly asked Trump about his characterization of some women as “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs” and “disgusting animals.” Kelly even invoked the Democratic phrase “War On Women,” something Republicans try not to mention since it puts them on the defensive. Trump replied that these labels were reserved for Rosie O’Donnell, although Kelly pointed out that they go well beyond O’Donnell. Trump was also asked about his companies’ four bankruptcies, and his answer, like many of his other answers, revealed a blunt, brutal honesty that, while maybe great for a corporate CEO, comes off as unseemly for a politician. Trump said that he had taken advantage of laws in place, and that “everybody else” in his position has done the same thing.
Trump also admitted what no Republican wants to admit: that donating to politicians is essentially bribery that gets the politicians to do the donors’ bidding. Perhaps most shockingly to the debate audience, Trump said that he would not even rule out a third party presidential run, nor would he pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee, unless it was himself. Trump’s veiled threat to run as a third party candidate if he is not treated well by the GOP — combined with Trump’s ability to finance such a third party run and the near-certainty that an independent Trump candidacy would kill the Republican nominee’s chances — again raises a central issue for the Republicans: what to do about Donald Trump?
The focus on Donald Trump, and his statements that have offended many Americans, continues to hurt the GOP brand. Indeed, a search of instant polls after the debate revealed that Trump was the big winner among Americans outside of the mainstream media, which at least showed that Trump’s many loyal fans have not left him. Perhaps they feel (rightfully so) that the Fox News hosts picked on Trump, while treating other candidates more kindly. For example, where were the questions to Chris Christie about his incompetent management during Bridgegate, or about his recent comments that “the national teachers’ union” deserves “a punch in the face”?
Nevertheless, a few other Republican candidates had a good debate. Pundits mentioned John Kasich and Marco Rubio as two of the night’s standouts. In contrast, however, Jeb Bush seemed flat and even bumbling in a couple of instances, and hardly had the stature of the great establishment candidate or party uniter that many Republicans had hoped he would be. Rand Paul also seemed shrill, and, in the words of MSNBC‘s Chris Matthews, “peevish.”
After the earlier GOP “kids’ table” debate involving the seven hopefuls that did not make the cut for the prime time debate, many pundits and viewers said that Carly Fiorina was the winner. However, Fiorina did little more than make catty remarks about Hillary Clinton, something she has been doing for many months without much effect. Given that Americans rarely vote for a sourpuss for president (think Bob Dole 1996), it’s unlikely that Fiorina will make much headway beyond being the GOP Flavor of the Week.
Most observers have wondered whether Donald Trump would eventually fall in performance. Even if one agrees that Trump took such a fall last night (and many people will say that Trump was just his usual self), the question now becomes whether Trump will fall from his front-runner status in GOP polls. If so, which Republican will seem competent and dynamic enough to replace him? Right now, the answers to those questions are still unknown, but either way, it’s fair to say that, in the 2016 presidential race, the Republican Party has a long way to go.
Photo by Peter Stevens, used under Creative Commons license. http://is.gd/V20RNB