Who won last night’s debate? On the basis of years of covering politics, I can say this: I don’t know. I don’t even know what winning means. Is the winner the candidate who moves his or her numbers or the candidate who solidifies his base so that, for instance, he or she does better in Iowa where many voters are deeply conservative evangelical Christians? The only winner I feel confident in naming is Fox News. It conducted a bang-up debate.
Now, here is a loser: Donald Trump. Television not only creates public figures, but it also destroys them. My reference point is Joseph McCarthy, late of the U.S. Senate, late of the state of Wisconsin, late of the Republican Party but present always in America’s limited gallery of demagogues. McCarthy and McCarthyism — the reckless hurling of unfounded accusations — was the creation of newspapers. Very few Americans saw him. Then, in 1954, McCarthy got extended TV coverage during what later became known as the Army-McCarthy hearings. Americans were appalled. The man was an ugly, giggling lout. TV destroyed him.
Trump, of course, has had plenty of TV time. But it’s mostly been clips — one idiotic statement after another. He’s been provocative and entertaining and also useful. Americans have seen the utility of a man who can stick it to the establishment. He’s the champion of the frustrated, the kind of guy who thinks that the song “My Way” was written for him. But that sort of appeal has a limited life, and at the debate, Americans got to see Trump in full. It was not an attractive show if only because the smugness seemed to ooze from him.
Somewhere along the line, Trump has been studying old newsreels of Benito Mussolini, the fascist Italian dictator. He thrusts his jaw as Il Duce did. He has the arrogance of the semi-knowledgeable, the man who compensates for a lack of depth with punk aggressiveness. I, for one, share his disdain for politically correct speech, but that’s not a license to insult — even Rosie O’Donnell.
So there it is. John Kasich did well — he’s actually come out of nowhere. Jeb Bush remains where he was, a bit tentative in the early going but downright presidential down the stretch. Marco Rubio showed that he’s the candidate Hillary Clinton should fear. He’s articulate, quick on his feet, plenty ambitious and possessed of a face so fresh it’s almost adolescent. Chris Christie was Jersey all the way, which was good, Ben Carson was charming and funny (for a surgeon) but not presidential material and Scott Walker performed better than he is. He knows too little to be president.
But no debate held in August of the year before the election could ever be determinative.
To recap: the winner, Fox News. The loser, Donald Trump. Now, go to the beach.