I saw three shows tonight during Fox News’ Republican debate: The Trump Show, The Kasich Dissent, and Everybody Else. Among those in that last category, Jeb Bush had a good night, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had his moments, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) won more friends.
Although he occasionally disappeared from view, Donald Trump was the central figure, particularly during the first hour. I can’t do any better on Trump than MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt, who tweeted: “Everyone was asking, which Trump would show up? There is only one, and he showed up to play.”
Yes, he did. From the very first moment of the debate, when he refused to rule out a third party run, to his defense of what we’ll call boorish comments about women to his reprise of his position on immigration, it was the same Trump who has risen to the top of the GOP polls.
There are moments that could hurt him. Certainly some Republicans will resent his refusal to pledge his support for the party’s nominee (unless, of course, it is he). In answering Fox News’s Megyn Kelly on women’s issues and his past comments on women, Trump’s in-your-face reply — “I’ve been very nice to you although I could probably not be based on the way you have treated me” – no doubt went badly with some viewers, particularly women.
But Trump has been entirely immune from the usual laws of politics, so it’s possible that his supporters will just keep cheering his violation of all the political conventions and his insistence on being himself. Fox itself and conservative talk radio hosts, with their power to influence Republicans, could influence how the faithful view these and other choice Donald moments.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, playing on his home turf in Cleveland, stood out as decidedly different from all his foes. He was “compassionate conservatism” come back to life. A Republican who not only accepted the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare but actually fought for it, Kasich didn’t back away. Instead, he offered a passionate and spirited defense of the program and a description of the good it does. Praising Medicaid is something that’s just not done at GOP events.
Medicaid money, he said, allowed the state to treat the mentally ill in prisons and those addicted to drugs. “The working poor, instead of having them come into the emergency rooms where it costs more where they’re sicker and we end up paying, we brought a program in here to make sure that people could get on their feet,” he said. “And you know what, everybody has a right to their God-given purpose.”
Kasich also gave an empathetic answer when asked about gay marriage and proposed that Republicans reach out to racial minorities and others who have not felt much welcomed by the party lately.
This may not play with significant parts of the GOP primary electorate, but on Thursday night, Kasich established himself as a unique and important voice.
Among the rest, judgments are necessarily subjective, but I thought Jeb Bush, who was threatening to turn into a gaffe machine, was forceful and clear. He did what others on the stage shied away from doing, criticizing Trump’s divisiveness. Trump did not hit him back, a kind of victory for Bush. The former Florida governor showed real passion in sticking by his support for Common Core education standards.
Chris Christie has not loomed large in the post-debate analysis I have seen so far, but he made his presence felt which, given his low standing in the polls, was essential to his soldiering on. The toughest interchange of the night came not, as many expected, with Trump, but between Christie and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) over government meta-data collection.
Rubio was fluent and smooth. If there is a sub-contest going on among Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Rubio was Thursday’s winner. Cruz’s unabashed right-wing oppositionism may yet work for him if Trump collapses. For now, Trump is taking up space Cruz needs to occupy.
The day’s other winner, in an earlier debate involving the candidates who didn’t make the main stage, was Carly Fiorina. Her over-the-top attacks on Hillary Clinton play very well among Republicans, and she seemed informed and in control.
The underlying premises of the debate were so deeply conservative that I doubt any Democrats who watched were tempted to jump ship, and I am not sure how many middle-of-the-road voters were drawn the Republicans’ way, except by Kasich and possibly by Rubio. The debate was held on the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. This never came up. I wasn’t surprised. But I was disappointed.