In the dozen hours since the end of last night’s Republican debate, I’ve seen a lot of people with very different takes on who did well and how the debate shook out. Nate Cohn has a very sophisticated take at the Times which looks at the very different audiences for debates – particularly the difference between the crowd and the immediate response from viewers and the more complex battle for buy-in from party elites. All good points. He thinks Rubio, Walker, and Kasich were strong and Trump and Bush did poorly. A lot of my shrewder friends think Rubio did well, too.
I confess this gave me some pause because I know I come to Rubio with some bias. He has always struck me as a lightweight, plain and simple, and basically hapless in big time political matches – see immigration reform. For me, Rubio did fine. But he struck me as basically invisible, someone who faded into the woodwork. He should be a frontrunner, one of the top two or three who really define the race. But the cadence of the debate looked nothing like that. An attractive man who says sensible things from a Republican perspective. Okay, who cares. He reminds of the candidate Democrats were looking for in the 80s – the golden boy who through personality and provenance squares all the corners and jettisons all the baggage the party can’t handle through coalitional politics.
So I take all this into account and I recommend you read Cohn’s piece.
But considering it all, I’m back where I started. I think they’re wrong. I think it was basically Trump’s night. At this stage of the cycle, we need to be listening to the score not reading the libretto. Fox made no attempt to conceal that they came into the debate to cut Trump down to size. They see him as a fraudulent candidate and they pushed hard on the scales of the Q&A to make sure viewers saw that too. But they barely landed a punch. He parried their questions with his characteristic mix of one-liners, indifferent self-assertion, and appeals to the gut-level emotional register of the GOP base – I don’t have time for PC, I used the system to get rich, Rosie O’Donnell is fat and ugly.
“Yes!” comes out of the GOP brainstem in response to this stuff like your foot kicks up when the doctor mallets your knee.
I should be clear that I say all this believing that it is close to inconceivable that Trump will be the GOP nominee. But that’s a long, long time from now.
Going into the debate, Trump was in the driver’s seat. He came through a debate with extremely hostile questioning still giving his voters just what he’s been giving them that’s been going over so well. He ignores the rules. They like that. Now he stood up to Fox. I think they’ll like that too.