1. The run-up to the debate yesterday was embarrassing to the news media, especially CNN—even Fox did not obsess as much about the man who wouldn’t be on stage in Iowa as that shameless network. Not that Fox isn’t shameless: it’s greatest shame, Bill O’Reilly, once again showed himself to be both unethical and insufferable when he had Trump on his show and begged, pleaded, and cajoled the real estate mogul to reverse his decision. “Be the bigger man,” Bill said at one point. What the hell does that mean? Bigger than who? His employers—I don’t watch Fox live any more because they are still his employers—who properly refused to let him bully Megyn Kelly out of a moderator’s chair? Megyn Kelly? No, that can’t be it. Trump is a intellectual, moral and ethical midget with delusions of grandeur: O’Reilly was just feeding his ego. Then we learned, from Trump, that O’Reilly had enticed him on the air by promising not to talk about the debate boycott. O’Reilly admitted that was true, and then blathered facetiously about milkshakes, as if lying to a guest’s face was a big joke. O’Reilly is one of the deplorable people—most of his supporters, famous and not, are also in this category—who are so devoid of principles themselves that they make Donald Trump look admirable by comparison.
2. I wish I could say that Megyn Kelly was impeccable last night, but she wasn’t. She had a big chip on her shoulder, and mentioned Trump in the very first question, with a pre-composed, gaggy phrasing about “the elephant not in the room”—lame witticisms were the theme of the night. That made the first question about her, and journalists are ethically obligated not to inject themselves into the story. No moderator should have mentioned Trump, but Kelly particularly. For the rest of the night she was aggressively adversarial, acting as if she was an undercover moderator from CNBC.
3. If there were any lingering doubts about what an arrogant jerk Ted Cruz is, his performance last night ought to have obliterated them. He reminds me of nothing so much as than the cocky high school nerd who thinks that because he’s elected class President, people really like him, but in truth he is socially hopeless. As a stage director and occasional humor writer, I cannot imagine a more pathetic attempt at a joke than his “I’m a maniac. Everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly. And Ben Carson, you’re a terrible surgeon. Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump part out of the way (rim shot!) . . .” bit. His timing was terrible, and because the thing went on long after everyone knew what the punchline would be, nobody but a shill or an idiot would laugh at it. Cruz got even worse, talking past his limit, whining about the moderators siccing everyone else on him (though they were), trying to change the rules, and sounding like Bill Clinton as he tried to explain away what were his obvious flip-flops on immigration.
I noticed that as the camera panned the debaters dispersing after the debate, nobody spoke to Cruz or even looked at him, while the others were smiling and being collegial to one another. No wonder.
4. The absence of Trump made the absurdity of Dr. Ben Carson’s candidacy even more evident. Based on several of his comments last night, he really does expect people to believe that having no qualifications or relevant experience for the job means he would be a better President than everyone else running. Where did he get such a bizarre idea? He can’t even blame Obama for it: much of the current President’s failure is based on his complete lack of executive experience and ability. How does that argue for a successor with even less of both? Carson has been wasting our time, and at this point, that’s a tangible offense against the United States of America, which really has to find someone trustworthy and competent. The search is not going well.
5. The moderators (Kelly, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier) were unfocused and unprofessional. One commentator suggested that they were trying to make up for the absence of Trump by trying to spark fights between the other candidates and directly attacking the candidates themselves, with Kelly as the lead attack dog. “It’s a debate, sir!” Chris Wallace protested when Cruz whined about this, but a debate is supposed to explicate policy differences, not be a series of “gotcha’s.”
Who was served by the Cruz-Rubio or Rubio-Bush “You changed your position-Yeah, but you did it worse!” exchanges? When they weren’t trying provoke mano a mano spats, they were asking trivial, bizarre questions, like the one to Jeb Bush about Puerto Rico statehood—now THERE’S a burning issue on everyone’s mind!—or how to stop the practice of charities spending too much on overhead. How about the national debt? What about climate change? In the absence of new issues—we have been around the barn on health care, Iran, Isis, national defense and immigration more than once—the candidates defaulted to familiar campaign talking points.
6. Using the Sunday morning show device of running old videos of candidates contradicting themselves is inappropriate in a debate format, especially if it is only going to be used on selected candidates, in this case, Rubio and Cruz. Kelly defended the tactic in the post-debate show. She’s wrong. What moderators should explore are the current positions of the candidates now; if another candidate wants to point to a flip-flop, that why it’s called a debate. (I say this even as I would swoon with joy to see a moderator of a Democratic candidates debate play Hillary’s “vast right wing conspiracy” clip and ask her, “Can you say that you were not completely aware of the truth of those accusations against your husband when you went on national TV and said that?”)
7. The use of Google YouTube channel “stars” to ask questions may be lucrative for Fox and Google or have some other corporate benefits, but as a debate feature it was worthless. If such guest questioners are going to be used at all, they should be chosen on the basis of their questions’ validity and relevance. The last “star,” Muslim blogger Nabela Noor, grinned like a zany as she asked a vague question about how the candidates would avoid the stigmatizing of emerging Muslim immigrant entrepreneurs. First, she blurred the lines between immigrant and illegal immigrants, a Democrat trick; second, nobody is advocating adverse measures against American citizen entrepreneurs no matter where they came from, and finally, the debate had already covered the Muslim immigrant issue ad nauseum. This was incompetent debate management. Noor has apparently compared Trump to Adolf Hitler on her YouTube channel, and is a Sanders supporter, and some pundits argue that this made her an inappropriate questioner. It’s the question that matters, not the questioner. It did seem that all three of the “YouTube stars” chosen were there to annoy Donald Trump, making the feature look biased as well as lame.
UPDATE: As I thought and hoped, Trumps boast that debate ratings would be down without him was dead wrong. Hubris. Remember that word. It is very important to predicting Trump’s ultimate destiny.