Ask Americans about when the great tradition of nationally televised presidential debates began, and many will be able to point to the famous Kennedy v. Nixon encounters of 1960… thereby creating the impression that these encounters have been a staple of every campaign since. This is most decidedly untrue. Lyndon Johnson, riding one of the great waves of presidential popularity in 1964, simply refused to share a stage with Barry Goldwater. Nixon himself – after being out-cooled by Kennedy in 1960 – ducked invitations to debate in 1968 and 1972. Only when Gerald Ford encountered Jimmy Carter in 1976 did the tradition take hold.
In the past, you see, ducking a debate was not simply the prerogative of the front-runner; it was accepted as the correct strategic move. Why give your trailing opponent a clear and very public shot to take you down? Why, you can practically hear Donald Trump saying, “that is sooooo stupid!!”
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So Donald Trump made the calculated bet that if he stood at the center of the stage in Des Moines on Monday night, seven desperate politicians would launch 100% of their Cruz missiles, Carson drones, and Bush whacks directly at him in a frenzied, frantic, last-ditch effort to take him down before Monday. Because it is becoming increasingly clear that if he takes Iowa, he can easily run the table and lock up the nomination in a matter of weeks.
America, please stop underestimating this guy. Trump’s no-show may have been his shrewdest play yet.
Let’s break this down into two discreet components: that he did it, and how he did it. The “how” is actually the best part.
If he had stood up two weeks ago and said, “you know, I see no strategic advantage to attending the final Iowa debate,” he would have risked being breaded and dumped in oil; just one more Iowa corn dog or chicken fried steak tossed on the picnic table for other candidates to devour. Imagine the feeding frenzy of testosterone-supplemented second tier candidates questioning his manhood.
No, the art of this deal was to create a credible misdirect. Donald Trump made the issue the journalistic objectivity of Fox News, which – aside from being world’s biggest kettle ever to call a pot black – created one of the cleverest “heads, I win; tails, you lose” of all time. He told Fox News that they had to remove Megyn Kelly from the moderator’s table, or he would walk
- If Fox caved in to this request, it would publicly validate that Trump is now far, far more powerful than Fox News.
- If Fox refused to capitulate, Trump would walk away from the debate… draining the viewership of the debate (this alone a great achievement for his campaign), and allowing him to claim that his rationale was based on a broader principle of journalistic fairness rather than simply ducking a debate in which he saw only downside.
In short, Trump won before the first question was asked.
But even he could not have imagined how perfectly the “One No Trump” debate would unfold.
The seven candidates on the stage on Monday night were thereby given the unbelievable opportunity to take two hours of completely uncontested shots at Donald Trump. They had the golden moment to say every single nasty thing they wanted to say to stop Trump from winning on Monday, with no risk of rejoinder.
And not one candidate on the stage saw the priceless gift they had been given.
For months, these guys had sucked up to Trump, terrified of taking him on face-to-face, mano-a-mano, because they had witnessed him raise Jeb Bush’s voice by a couple of octaves and they had watched him shoo Rand Paul as if he were a cocker spaniel.
So they all suddenly have the opportunity to launch full broadsides at Trump, knowing that he is not even there to respond and will have little chance to do so before the votes on Monday, and what do they all do? They rip into each other, and barely mention Trump’s name.
Donald Trump could not have scripted this debate better if it was the season finale of The Apprentice. Ted Cruz at the center podium became the Piñata of the Prairie, taking incoming from all quarters. Trump, in standing down, let the other candidates do his dirty work of bloodying Cruz days before the caucusing. And much as the other candidates tried, nobody took him down quite as hard as the newly energized Fox News.
Finally, six months into the debates, Fox News finally learned the trick that Jon Stewart used for seventeen years: find old video clips of candidates saying things that are graphic evidence of flip-flopping, shape-shifting, and blatant bending of alleged principle. The clip crew at Fox showed a montage of a younger Ted Cruz sounding very much the compromiser, very much the man eager to pass the gang of eight immigration bill, and still every bit as smarmy as an appeaser as he is in his role as purist. Cruz, in the face of video evidence, struggled between defiance and tactical retreat, ultimately attempting to jargon his way out, opting for the venial sin of “compromiser” rather to the mortal sin of “flip-flopper.”
Cruz made another brazen debating error, at one point indignantly noting that the “last four questions have been, Rand, attack Ted on this; Chris, attack Ted on this…” The audience pounced on his self-pity as an audible gust of disgust blew through the arena.
Fox News piled on. Chris Wallace seemed to unleash the full fury of months of repressed resentment, barking at Cruz that he did not have the right to a reply after another candidate had spoken. “Sir,” he spat out contemptuously, “I know you like to argue about the rules, but we’re going to conduct the debate.” Smack down.
It was not a good night for Ted, who had so mastered the role of challenger that he flailed in his role as de facto leader. He chose a very bad night to have what was by far his worst debate.
But the good Cruz news was that no one else really seemed to definitively shine.
There will be those who give the evening to Marco Rubio, who did manage to consume an outsized amount of the oxygen in the room. Rubio has dumped the sunny disposition that once seemed to be central to his appeal, and has sought to recast himself as the candidate who will be the most extreme in defending the United States homeland from terrorism. Most troubling were the repeated occasions in which he ominously used the word “Guantanamo” as if to convey that he knew he couldn’t actually say “waterboarding” out loud.
Rubio was the other candidate that Fox News chose to star in a series of “video gotcha” clips. The Rubio video montage showcased his morphing role in the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill, which he has allowed to become a dead weight to his candidacy – not necessarily because of the positions he espoused at the time so much as his utter terror of admitting that his position has changed. Until he figures out how to talk truthfully, sensibly, and clearly about immigration, every Republican debate is going to have its “Gang of Eight” segment as surely as each so far has a predictable “Break for Benghazi.”
Chris Christie may be prove to be (forgive me) the biggest loser come New Hampshire, but if he is indeed voted off the island, I will miss his presence in the debates. After watching Rubio and Cruz ineptly dance on the heads of immigration pins, Christie turned to the audience and asked if they, too, wished they had a “Washington to English Converter” to translate all the double-speak. Chris Christie then patronizingly explained to Rubio that it is actually o.k. to change your mind. It was a world-class diss.
The candidate who seemed most lost in Thursday’s debate was Jeb Bush. Ironically, Jeb has been the candidate who has tried the hardest to take down Donald Trump… yet given the wide open opportunity to rip Trump to shreds with virtual impunity, Bush squandered the evening with pointless policy parsing and lukewarm attacks on the other candidates. Dare I admit it, I have actually come to like Jeb Bush over the course of the campaign, and one reason is that you can really tell that he loathes the ugly business of ripping into his competitors. One learns at Andover that this sort of thing ought to be done discretely.
John Kasich showed spunk in Des Moines, though my hunch is that he very intentionally spent his evening talking over the Iowans and on to the televisions in the Granite State, where he, too, is locked in a battle for survival among the four establishment candidates. Kasich spoke eloquently about the ravaging of drug addiction, which was an issue in Iowa but a full-on scourge in New Hampshire.
Rand Paul and Ben Carson, who have both been rumored to be the recently discovered “ninth planet,” continued to orbit the debate space in ever more distant trajectories. Carson – who once led in Iowa and who knows that its Christian-values community makes it his best shot -- could well be space junk by Monday night.
Who won the debate?
First, I’d like to give an honorable mention to Fox News. Make no mistake: I generally loathe this network, and I believe that their pioneering work in the field of fact-free journalism has done more to contribute to the political polarization of our population than any hundred right wing or left wing politicians combined. But on Thursday night, Fox was on a mission. Clearly energized that their leaders did not back down to Trump, they were zealous to prove that they really are hard-edged, tough, and knowledgeable reporters. They did a good job.
But if you want to know who won last night, just ask your favorite bridge player.
Because any bridge player knows that the hardest bid to play is “No Trump.”