Here’s one thing Republicans promised themselves to do after the last cycle that’s actually been implemented: partner with conservative media so that the GOP candidates weren’t being subjected to hostile questioning from “outsiders.”
So today we had the first official GOP presidential debate, and the seven-candidate “undercard” forum earlier in the day, both sponsored by Fox News. And they put their stamp on the events in a way that is almost certain to shape, if not winnow, the gigantic GOP field.
At the 5:00 p.m. “Happy Hour” debate, virtually all of the questions were framed from the point of view of a conservative movement vetting the candidates, beginning with a battery about electability and exploring potential ideological heresies like Lindsey Graham’s openness to compromise with Democrats and Rick Santorum’s strange interest in wage levels for working-class people.
The candidate Republicans in general most wanted to promote to a higher tier, Carly Fiorina, was universally proclaimed the winner of the early forum, partly because she was one of two candidates who drew a question that enabled her to take a shot at Donald Trump even as she pandered to his followers. No one asked her (not in the forum, or in the extensive pre- or post-forum discussion at Fox) about her uniquely disastrous business and political record. It helped that Santorum, Pataki and Gilmore were clearly living in the 1990s, while Rick Perry returned to his inarticulate and gaffe-ridden 2012 ways. Bobby Jindal hung on to his prospects of serving in somebody else’s cabinet. All in all, it’s exactly what Republicans wanted from this event.
Fox News’ purpose in the main 10-candidate event was made plain with the first question: an in-your-face spotlight on Donald Trump’s refusal to promise not to run as an independent candidate. And the relentless pounding of Trump—on his bankruptcies, his past support for single-payer health care and abortion rights, his “specific evidence” for claiming Mexico has dispatched criminals to the U.S. (slurs about immigrants by other candidates didn’t come up) and even his sexist tweets-—continued right on through to Frank Luntz’s post-debate focus group, designed to show how much damage Trump had sustained. It was by far the least impartial showing by debate sponsors I have seen, up to and including the disgraceful ABC-moderated 2008 Democratic event that involved a deliberate trashing of all the candidates.
The Trump-bashing agenda distracted from the other candidates significantly. In what may have been another example of Fox carrying water for the GOP and conservative orthodoxy, Chris Christie was invited to savage Rand Paul on surveillance policy and aid to Israel. Paul responded with a nasty crack at Christie’s famous hug of Obama, and Christie responded by citing the 9/11 survivors he had hugged (and that Paul had implicitly disrespected by objecting to warrantless wiretapping and so forth). On a separate front, Christie and Huckabee were invited to mix it up on “entitlement reform,” and they did so rather cordially. But these were the rare non-Trump points of collision.
The strange direction of the questioning made it hard to name a “winner.” Jeb Bush deftly handled a Common Core question. Scott Walker misdirected his way around a pointed question about his jobs record. Ben Carson gave some glimpses of the craziness of his world view (a reference to Saul Alinsky, an apparent dismissal of complaints about torture as—you guessed it!—political correctness), but recovered with a nice rap about his surgical successes in his closing. Rubio apparently impressed people who hadn’t heard his well-worn up-from-poverty story; he also covered his ideological flanks by denying he was for a rape/incest exception to a hypothetical abortion ban. And Kasich (who benefited from a home-crowd advantage) probably struck a chord with people who are not “base” conservatives and are thus open to his defense of his Medicaid expansion and his interest in people “left in the shadows.”
From the perspective of Fox News and its GOP allies, you’d guess the ideal denouement would be Trump crashing in the polls, to be replaced in the top ten by Carly Fiorina. We’ll see how avidly and universally the conservative spin machine pursues that outcome in the days just ahead.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.