Whether any of the Republican candidates for president will be perceived as having “won” the first prime time debate of this year’s primary season is unclear. In the initial coverage of the debate, however, one winner has emerged: Fox News. Many observers praised the tough questioning of the candidates. A particular target for rave reviews was news anchor Megyn Kelly. “She may not be in the presidential race, but it looks like Megyn Kelly earned at least the popular vote on Thursday,” wrote Elle’s Mattie Kahn. Her hometown newspaper beamed with pride about the debate’s “star.” And there’s plenty more where that came from.
I agree that at least some of this praise was justified—it may not be hard to get Donald Trump to whine, but Kelly was really onto something. Early on in the debate, I was struck by questions that were indeed tougher and more substantive than one would be likely to see from less consciously ideological media outlets. And I agree that Kelly deserves credit for addressing Donald Trump’s history of egregiously sexist comments (“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.”)
Even better was the question Kelly asked Walker about his abortion policies. You might expect Fox News moderators to allow Republican candidates to sidestep their least popular views on the subject. To her credit, Kelly asked Walker to defend his position that bans on abortion should not even contain exemptions for the life of the mother—making the laws even more restrictive than they were in most states before Roe v. Wade—observing that Walker’s position was opposed by 83 percent of the public.
Given that the abortion debate is so often conducted on terrain Republicans would prefer, and not just on Fox News, this question was a welcome surprise and yielded important information about one of the Republican frontrunners, who confirmed his radical views.
But before we get carried away praising Kelly and the other moderators, we should keep a couple of things in mind. First of all, even if Kelly is a good journalist and asked some good questions last night, she has some views that are nutty enough that Trump would sign for them. In particular, she has expressed consistently bizarre and retrograde views on race: obsessing over the utterly irrelevant New Black Panthers as if Richard Nixon was still in the White House, defending the racist emails sent by police officers in Ferguson as normal, and insisting that the fictional Santa Claus “just is” white. Not to mention her willfully misleading attacks on Black Lives Matter.
Granted, the personal politics of the moderators don’t matter if the questions are fair. But even on this score Fox News has been overpraised. It’s certainly true that some of the candidates were asked tough questions—Trump, most notably, but also other candidates like Walker and Ben Carson. But consider the kind of questions that were given to Florida senator Marco Rubio:
WALLACE: All right, well, Senator Rubio, let me see if I can do better with you. Is it as simple as our leaders are stupid, their leaders are smart, and all of these illegals coming over are criminals?
WALLACE: Senator Rubio, when Jeb Bush announced his candidacy for presidency, he said this: “There’s no passing off responsibility when you’re a governor, no blending into the legislative crowd.”
Could you please address Governor Bush across the stage here, and explain to him why you, someone who has never held executive office, are better prepared to be president than he is, a man who you say did a great job running your state of Florida for eight years.
BAIER: Senator Rubio, why is Governor Bush wrong on Common Core?
WALLACE: Senator Rubio, more than 3,000 people sent us questions about the economy and jobs on Facebook. And here is a video question from Tania Cioloko from Philadelphia. Here she is. (begins video clip) “Please describe one action you would do to make the economic environment more favorable for small businesses and entrepreneurs and anyone dreaming of opening their own business.”
KELLY: Senator Rubio, I want to ask you the same question. But I do want to mention, a woman just came here to the stage and asked, what about the veterans? I want to hear more about what these candidates are going to do for our nation’s veterans. So I put the question to you about God and the veterans, which you may find to be related.
Rubio wasn’t so much thrown softballs as he was given softballs set up on a tee with 10 strikes and the defensive team told to leave the field. (When Kelly asked the last question, I expected her to ask Rubio his position on motherhood and apple pie too.)
The questioning, in other words, was much less fair than it might have seemed on the surface. Donald Trump, who isn’t going to win the nomination but has a toxic effect on the party as long as he’s in the race, was treated to a brutal inquisition. Rubio, who is arguably the most appealing general election candidate in the field but whose campaign is floundering, was thrown one life preserver after another. John Kasich and Jeb Bush were also treated more gently than the other candidates.
In other words, as Ed Kilgore noticed last night, the candidates who Republican elites would most like to see get traction were given much easier questions than the candidates Republican elites would prefer pack up and go away. Ultimately, Fox News gotta Fox News.
Scott Lemieux is a Guardian US contributing opinion writer, a professor of political science at the College of Saint Rose and a blogger at Lawyers, Guns and Money. Follow him on Twitter:@LemieuxLGM