How Fox turned the first Republican presidential debate into a plus for the GOP.
Leading up to Thursday’s debate, most liberals I know were somewhere between smug and gleeful. The Republican presidential process had started out as something of a circus, with more candidates than anyone could remember and a corresponding need to say outrageous things to stand out from the crowd. And then Donald Trump got into the race, openly characterizing undocumented Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists, and responding to criticism from Senator Lindsey Graham by saying Graham was “not as bright as Rick Perry” and revealing his personal cellphone number.
With Trump in the race and rising to the top of the polls, the other candidates started acting out like five-year-old boys competing for a pretty kindergarten teacher’s disciplinary attention. Previously, Ben Carson had set the gold standard for crazy, with his comparisons of ObamaCare to slavery and the IRS to the Gestapo. But now Mike Huckabee was talking about Obama “marching [the Israelis] to the door of the oven“, and discussing using the military and the FBI to stop abortions. Rand Paul was destroying the tax code with a literal chainsaw, and Ted Cruz went even further by cooking a strip of bacon on the barrel of an AR-15. Lindsey Graham seemed downright eager to be in a war with Iran. (“We win!“)
It got so bad that even Democrats were getting a little uncomfortable, thinking about how these shenanigans reflected on America. Humorist Andy Borowitz was only partially kidding when he wrote:
As preparations get under way for the first Republican Presidential debate, on Thursday night, a new poll shows that Americans are deeply concerned that the rest of the world might see it.
Hours before the debate, this showed up on my Facebook newsfeed.
For a real news network or even an unbiased political entertainment network, none of this would have been a problem. (Pass the popcorn and let the insanity begin!) But the debate was being hosted and televised by the official Republican Party Ministry of Information, a.k.a. Fox News. So although a debate that descended into kindergartenish chaos would make great television, Fox’ brain trust recognized that such a spectacle would hurt the conservative movement it has worked so hard to foster. They saw that as a problem.
They solved it brilliantly.
If you watched the debate through your liberal glasses, you may not have recognized their achievement; to you, everybody probably looked just as scary and unhinged as you expected. (When Huckabee started talking about invoking the 5th and 14th Amendments to protect the personhood of the unborn, he seemed seconds away from calling for federal troops to occupy abortion clinics. But moderator Brett Baier wisely moved on.) However, in the eyes of moderates, independents, and low-information voters, I suspect the debate raised the image of the Republican Party and its gaggle of candidates.
How did Fox manage that? Artfully. I learned a lot by watching.
The problem and the solution. The first step in solving a problem is to state it precisely: The Republican Party’s problem is that its conservative base is shrinking and far out of tune with the rest of the country. So as they campaign for the nomination, candidates constantly have to choose: Should they appeal to the base voters (who will be the majority in the upcoming primaries), or to the American public as a whole (who will judge the eventual nominee in the general election)? For example: Members of the conservative base love to hear pledges that Republicans in Congress will shut down the government this fall and keep it shut until Obama knuckles under and agrees to defund Planned Parenthood. But the public as a whole is ready to be done with that kind of brinksmanship.
So the path to a Republican presidency involves walking a tightrope: leaning far enough to the right to get the nomination, but not so far as to topple out of the mainstream voter’s consideration. Mitt Romney (who I think was a far better candidate than he gets credit for) couldn’t manage it in 2012. His actual record as governor of Massachusetts would have been hard to defeat: He was a problem-solver who could work across the aisle to come up with bipartisan programs other executives wanted to imitate, the way ObamaCare imitated RomneyCare. But he had to pander to right-wing extremists to get the nomination, and he couldn’t recover in November.
Since then, the problem has only gotten worse: The base has gotten angrier and more demanding, while the white Christians who provide its membership continue to shrink as a percentage of the population.
The worst possible thing for the image of the party would be to lob a series of questions into that gap between the base and the average voter: Ask Ted Cruz about his role in the 2013 government shutdown. Ask Ben Carson if Hitler might actually have been a teensy bit worse than President Obama. Ask all the candidates how they plan to avoid war with Iran (if they do), or what they would say to the 16 million people who will lose their health coverage if ObamaCare is repealed, or whether they think our scientists are conspiring to deceive us about climate change, or why they want to force women to bear their rapists’ children.
Once you understand that, you also see the solution: Control the questions and control who answers them. If an issue makes the party look bad, just don’t ask about it. And when most of the candidates stand united around an unpopular position, pick out the one with the most moderate record and ask him to defend it. That answer will look completely different to the two camps: The base voter will see that you’re really putting this guy on the spot. But the average voter will listen to the answer and say, “Hey, these Republicans aren’t as far out as I thought.”
And finally, there’s the special problem of Donald Trump, whose wild statements have been turning off Hispanics, women, and other key demographics. Here, the solution is to excommunicate him: Trump is not a real Republican, so all the bile he expresses is just personal and has nothing to do with the party.
See nothing, say nothing. For two hours in that arena in Cleveland, large chunks of American political discourse just vanished, without even leaving a puff of smoke behind.
The environment, for example, was simply not an issue — not just climate change, but also pollution, oil spills, endangered species, or any other environmental concern. Bashing the EPA is a standard Republican applause line, but there was no cause for that here, because the environment did not exist. It was so far off the radar that Jeb Bush could express puzzlement that Hillary Clinton hasn’t endorsed the Keystone XL pipeline. Rand Paul didn’t have to explain why he once proposed a 42% cut in the National Park Service budget, and Ted Cruz didn’t have to justify his proposal to sell off large chunks of federal wilderness lands.
The related issue of energy policy was also off the table, so no one had to defend burning coal, or fracking, or drilling for oil offshore, or in other fragile ecosystems like the Arctic. No one had to explain wanting to end subsidies for wind and solar power.
Economic inequality was also not an issue, despite the fact that it has come up in several of the candidates’ campaigns: Rand Paul has talked about “the income gap”, and Rick Santorum has charged that “Middle America is hollowing out.” Just about every candidate has questioned whether the American Dream of economic mobility will be available to future generations. But none of that came up.
A related phrase you won’t find in the transcript is minimum wage. A large majority of the public supports raising it, because people who have full-time jobs should not have to live in poverty, and businesses whose workers need food stamps are the real moochers in our society, not the hard-working people they underpay.
But as far as I know, Rick Santorum is the only Republican candidate who wants to raise the minimum wage at all, and even his proposed rate is far smaller than the $10.10 that President Obama supports. (Bernie Sanders wants a $15 minimum.) And while I haven’t found a direct quote of a candidate openly calling to repeal the federal minimum wage, several seem to dislike it on general principles. Marco Rubio has said, “Minimum wage laws have never worked in terms of having the middle class attain more prosperity.” And the Rand Paul 2016 Facebook page posted a link with the comment “How the minimum wage hurts everyone.”
Student debt wasn’t in the questions, and only came up because Marco Rubio volunteered that he used to have some. “How is [Hillary Clinton] gonna lecture me about student loans? I owed over $100,000 just four years ago.” But that was just a fact, not a problem, so no solutions were necessary.
Equal pay for women? Off the table. Prosecute bankers whose law-breaking contributed to the Great Recession? No mention. Again, Marco Rubio volunteered that he wanted to repeal the only real financial reform Congress passed after the collapse, Dodd-Frank, inaccurately blaming it for the failure of small banks. But Fox completely omitted Wall Street reform from the agenda.
No one was asked about government shutdowns — including Ted Cruz, who more than any other person was responsible for the last shutdown. Another shutdown in the fall is a real possibility, and Cruz in particular wants that option left on the table. But it wasn’t discussed.
Although many candidates called for ending ObamaCare and none defended it, no one was asked how to replace it, or what they would say to the millions of Americans who have health insurance now, but will lose it if ObamaCare is simply repealed without a replacement.
Although all the candidates oppose the Iran nuclear deal and several criticized it during the debate, none was asked how he plans to avoid going to war.
The Black Lives Matter movement rated one question (to Scott Walker, who dodged it. He didn’t say whether he thought police were over-aggressive towards blacks, but merely called for better police training. There was no follow-up.)
Voting rights? Not an issue. Gun violence? Nothing.
Pin the tail on the moderate. Rather than draw attention to the most rabidly conservative positions the candidates have taken, Fox repeatedly picked out the candidates’ most moderate positions and asked them to justify why they weren’t more conservative.
For example, most of the ten candidates oppose allowing abortions in cases of rape or incest. But Marco Rubio was asked to justify favoring such exceptions (which he denied, misleadingly). No one was asked why he would force a woman to bear her rapist’s child. (The one counter-example to the pattern was when Scott Walker was asked to justify his opposition to abortions that protect the life of the mother. He dodged, and there was no follow-up.)
Governor Kasich was asked to justify accepting the money the federal government offered his state to expand Medicaid, but Governor Walker wasn’t asked to justify turning the money down in Wisconsin, thereby denying coverage to 87,000 Wisconsin residents. Kasich talked about the good that money has done in Ohio, delivering a paean to compassion and the effectiveness of government that is totally atypical of both his own philosophy and the Republican Party as a whole.
Kasich got to give another heart-warming speech about love and acceptance when asked how he would respond if one of his daughters turned out to be lesbian. But Mike Huckabee wasn’t asked why he believes same-sex marriage will lead to “the criminalization of Christianity“.
Jeb Bush was asked why he favors immigration reform. (Ted Cruz volunteered that he led the fight against the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate but died in the House.) On the campaign trail, I believe all the candidates have come out against the executive order by which President Obama has prevented DREAMer deportation, and the Republican-dominated House has voted to deport them, but Fox did not find DREAMer deportation worth mentioning.
Rand Paul had to justify why he wants to stop the NSA from collecting the phone records of Americans who have done nothing wrong.
Trump. From the opening question, the moderators made their position clear: Donald Trump is not really a Republican. That opening was a lesson in how apparently neutral questions can in fact be targeted. Brett Baier asked:
Is there anyone on stage, and can I see hands, who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person.
Only Trump raised his hand, and that invited follow-up questions, a reminder that an independent run by Trump “would almost certainly hand the race over to Democrats and likely another Clinton,” and a direct attack from Rand Paul:
This is what’s wrong. He buys and sells politicians of all stripes. … He’s already hedging his bet on the Clintons, OK? So if he doesn’t run as a Republican, maybe he supports Clinton, or maybe he runs as an independent.
Trump was later asked about his past support for “a host of liberal policies” (partial-birth abortion, an assault-weapon ban, and single-payer health care), and his donations to Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. He has justified those donations as a normal business practice, and so he was asked “what specifically” he got in return.*
Megyn Kelly finally brought it home:
In 2004, you said in most cases you identified as a Democrat. Even in this campaign, your critics say you often sound more like a Democrat than a Republican, calling several of your opponents on the stage things like clowns and puppets. When did you actually become a Republican?
It was hard to miss her implication that the right answer was never.
Results. I suspect that when all is said and done, we’ll find out that Fox’ effort to pick the candidate — favoring Rubio and Kasich while trying to cast out Trump — had very little effect. But in the way the debate showcased all the candidates and made the Republican race seem much less clownish than it has otherwise been, I think Fox has scored a major victory for its party.
All in all, the evening resembled one of those holiday dinners where you introduce your fiance to your crazy relatives for the first time. All day long, you short-circuit the discussions that will set Aunt Jenny ranting about the Jews, or evoke one of Uncle Bob’s long pointless stories. You carefully approach your sister only when her husband is around to keep her in line, and you seek out Cousin Billy early, before he starts drinking. Only in the car, after hours of threading a safe path through the labyrinth of family issues, do you finally begin to relax. And that’s when your spouse-to-be says, “I don’t know what you’ve been so worried about. They don’t seem that bad to me.”
* Trump replied that because he was a contributor, Hillary had to come to his wedding. I wish I were doing Twitter for Hillary, because I know exactly how I’d respond. Of course she should deny that money was her reason for attending, and she should promise to attend all his future weddings as well, whether he gives any more money to her campaigns or not.