I posted some pre-debate thoughts below, but was not able to post any immediate reaction because of limited computer access. Of course the debate was explosive and has resulted in some considerable fallout, so little I write is going to be new, but here are some general impressions.
It is very difficult to view these things objectively, so it is impossible to say who won, especially on the margins for the candidates who get less air time and made no major gaffs. Everyone has biases and tends to see the outcome they want to see. Who won the Christie vs. Paul exchange, for example? It depends on who you agree with. Who has a neutral opinion on that subject? So I’m going to give general overall impressions.
First of all, I thought FOX and the moderators were awful. I don’t like gotcha questions to begin with, because they make the candidates defensive so they spend too much time trying to explain a discrepancy or whatever, and not enough giving a general response. If, for example, a candidate is currently on the record as opposing Obamacare and wanting to repeal it, I would much rather him be asked simply what would he like to do post repeal rather than have him explain some statement he had made in the past that was wishy washy on repeal. The past squishiness on the subject gives me some indication of how authentically and deeply he may hold his anti-Obama Care views, but watching him explain his evolution doesn’t add anything. We know why he evolved on the issue. Because he is running for President in the GOP primary.
FOX struck me as attempting to prove their neutrality and how smart they are by starting off with a series of gotcha questions. But they did neither. They came off looking mean spirited and like a bunch of smart a**es.
Which brings us to the main fallout of the debate. FOX, far from being neutral, had an obvious anti-Trump agenda. Some say they also had a pro-Bush agenda. I didn’t pick up on that at the time, but I can see it in hindsight. But the anti-Trump agenda was palpable. The first question was deliberately intended to turn the crowd against Trump from the start. They knew the answer to the question before they asked it. The only question was whether Trump would hold out or give in. He acted like a man and told the truth. Good for him. Trump has to hold out that threat to keep the GOP Establishment honest. As long as he holds that credible threat out there, there is only so far they can go in actively opposing him.
It’s too early in the race for that question and there haven’t really been any big rumors in that regard anyway, just general talk. The question was not to get information. It was intended to turn the crowd against Trump.The crowd was obviously a very partisan Republican crowd that was there to cheer for their guy, so FOX knew that question would not go over well with the audience. They would not have asked that question if the audience had been made up of angry independents. You know they game planned that question before hand, and even essentially admitted as much in the post debate coverage. And the post debate coverage was possibly worse than the debate itself. It was so anti-Trump that it is simply not credible that it happened by chance. There was an agenda being worked out disguised as commentary and focus group reaction.
I didn’t think that Trump handled all the questions as well as he could have. In that respect, he didn’t do as well as I thought he would. But the bias against him was so obvious, especially from Megyn Kelly, that FOX and Kelly did the impossible. They made Trump look sympathetic. They made him look like the victim.
When the debate was over, I immediately went to social media to see the reaction. My thought was that FOX had overplayed its hand and there was likely to be a backlash, but I was not expecting the level of backlash I saw. People were furious with FOX. Trump supporters and even people who just have a sense of fair play. FOX and Megyn Kelly just got eviscerated on Facebook and Twitter.
Trump himself went on Twitter late into the night and let them have it as well. Trump is actually more facile in 100 and however many characters on Twitter than he is verbally. Yes he can be crude. Yes he can be mean spirited. Yes it is childish. Yes it is undignified. But nevertheless, it is a thing of beauty. I found myself fist pumping as I read his Tweets. Politicians are in general such a weak and slimy lot, that it is extremely refreshing to watch someone with a set of nads fight back and defend himself, even if it violates rules of discourse that traditionalist conservatives would normally uphold.
There is clearly a ceiling on Trump’s support that his debate performance might have reinforced, but I also think it very likely firmed up his base of support. All those social media commenters are going to march to the polls and pull the lever for Trump just to spite his detractors.
I also think that FOX news might have damaged themselves in the long term. While Trump potentially has appeal to folks in the angry middle, my sense is that his support is coming largely from angry conservatives, the kind of people who likely watch FOX. Promises to never watch or never buy such and such again should generally be taken with a grain of salt, but a lot of the comments towards FOX and Kelly were of that nature.
As for the others, I though Bush avoided any big mistakes but generally underwhelmed. I though Walker’s performance was neutral. I was surprised by Rubio and Kasich. Both were quite polished I thought. You could tell Kasich has been doing the politics thing for a while. I thought Cruz spoke to his base. I think Rand has a particular handicap in these formats given the role he is playing, but I want to deal with that separately.
In general, and I thought this in 2008 as well, I think Huckabee excels in these formats. I thought he demagogued the Social Security issue, but the guy is smooth as silk. If so many people didn’t already have an ingrained opinion about him, I think more people would recognize this.
Ben Carson does not belong on the stage with these other candidates, but I say that not as a criticism but as a praise. Carson strikes me as a really decent and honorable fellow. He comes across as earnest and genuine. He’s not over his head, because none of the other candidates except Trump and Paul (MD) and maybe Cruz (Harvard Law), are worthy of carrying his shoes based on real accomplishments other than getting themselves elected to office. He seems out of his element. Politics is hard on nice guys, and I’m not entirely sure his heart is in it. If he didn’t have a lot of people whispering in his ear to seize the moment, I don’t think he would have run.