In the morning I’ll probably regret writing this, but right now I feel confident saying that the first top-tier Republican presidential debate of the 2016 cycle was one of the most substantive, and certainly the most entertaining, I’ve seen in 20 years.
Now, considering how vacuous these political debates can be, this isn’t exactly saying much. But there are a number of reasons why it worked and why people should emulate it.
For one, it featured journalists willing to ask genuinely challenging questions. The performance by the moderators, a fiesty Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace, should put to the rest the notion that Fox News is any less interested in serious political journalism than competing cable news networks. Fact is, it’s difficult to imagine a panel of MSNBC or CNN anchors peppering a slate of Democratic Party candidates featuring Hillary Clinton with comparably vigorous queries.
But even tough questions can be brushed off by a competent politician. What made this debate atypical was that—unlike the GOP JV iteration earlier in the day—moderators deliberately poked at the vulnerabilities of each candidate, bringing up their most inconvenient opinions and statements, and challenging specific contentions rather than teeing up softballs. They acted as if they were the opposition. They reminded us that Chris Christie oversaw numerous credit downgrades in New Jersey, that Scott Walker was not the job creator he claimed to be, that Ted Cruz has a serious people problem, that Ben Carson knows nothing about foreign policy, and that Rand Paul blames Republicans for the creation of ISIS. And, hey, Donald Trump, what’s with the misogyny and bankruptcies?
On and on it went.
The tailored nature of the probing was probably necessitated by the big number of participants. But it helped that Fox bypassed the counterproductive notion of “fairness” that normally dictates all candidates must answer the same exact questions within the same allotted time— as if they were participating in an Oxford debate rather than a larger-than-usual panel discussion on cable television. With this, the Fox moderators helped dial down the platitude quotient somewhat (though, naturally, it was still high) and candidates struggled to slip into their tedious resume recitations.
Even the raise-your-hand survey, typically the lowest form of gotcha journalism, transformed into an amusing argument over Donald Trump’s threat of a third-party candidacy.
The second reason it worked was that the moderators were able to pit certain candidates against each other—and then let them go at it. Sometimes these were legitimate ideological fights; most memorably, the Christie-Paul squabble over National Security Agency data collections, with Rand making idealistic libertarian case and Christie the hawkish national defense position.
“I want to collect more records from terrorists but less records from innocent Americans,” a libertarian senator from Kentucky yelled at the moderate Republican governor of New Jersey on national television.
That’s a “completely ridiculously answer,” Christie retorted. “How are you supposed to know?”
“You support the Fourth Amendment!” Paul shouts. “Get a warrant! Get a judge to sign a warrant!”
Back and forth they went. Paul seemed to get the best of the skirmish, even before topping it off with a quip about Christie hugging Obama. But then cameras caught Paul’s unsightly smirking as Christie threw a comeback about only remembering the hugs of the 9/11 widows.
And if you love politics, this, my friends, is all gold.
Thirdly, though there has been plenty to scoff at, this GOP field is actually pretty strong. No, Trump and Carson (the latter an affable man who has zero political acumen) don’t belong, but many others were surprisingly impressive. That doesn’t mean any single candidate is sure to beat Hillary, but there are probably around four who could beat her. I’ve argued that Marco Rubio is likely the most gifted and well-positioned candidate in GOP field, and this debate only reinforces that belief. But others acquitted themselves, well enough—including Jeb, Walker, and Cruz.
Finally, there’s Trump. I imagine it’s the beginning of the end for him—the Luntz focus group hated his shtick; he was “like a politician” with “no specifics” who was “sucking air out of the room” and had “crashed and burned”—because people will now be able to contrast his buffoonery with other options available to them. With that said, and I hate to admit it, he was a lot of fun to watch. I had to laugh out loud when made the absurd claim that no one had been speaking about “illegal immigration” until he hit the scene a few months ago. But there were so many absurd claims.
Seeing him like this, I’m not sure Trump is as detrimental for Republicans as everyone imagines, considering he makes anyone standing near him look like Cicero. And these debates? They’re only going to help the GOP.