Republican Deathmatch: Fox News Delivers A Very Different Brand Of GOP Debate
Fox News gifted the world with a very different brand of GOP Debate last night, pressing–at times even attacking–the various (and numerous) hopefuls for the Republican Presidential nomination with a zeal that is usually reserved for Democrats and Iranians in the corridors of the News Corp building. To be fair to the Fox News crew (<–this is only the first of many counterintuitive-to-the-point-of-paradoxical phrases that will be needed to describe last night’s debate) it was a bloody job, but somebody had to do it, and they did it rather well. To start with, the Republican bench is so overcrowded with also-rannabes that to even slog through the entire batting order, Fox News had to set up a two-round debate, scheduling a 5pm warm-up act slot for the 7 candidates who share the very bottom of the polls, a dubious recognition that has been characterized as “the kid’s table”; “the losers’ debate”; “amateur hour” or–in soundclash terms–“early jugglin’.” The 10 serious(est) candidates were awarded a place at the PrimeTime debate at 9pm.
For their part Fox News moderators Megyn Kelly, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier seemed determined to put their journalistic big boy pants on and earn their seat at the grown up’s table as well. Accordingly, the fluffball questions that any of the PrimeTime candidates–Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee and John Kasich were standouts–might have expected on a solo visit to the Fox News set (well, ok, except for Chris Christie) were put away for the winter and the good cutlery came out. The pointed questions and heated exchanges that resulted–though well within Fox’ normal arsenal of attack-dog tactics–exposed legitimate weaknesses in each candidate’s appeal to voters–especially Republican voters–and quickly identified real, substantive differences in their platforms and worldviews. In that sense Kelly, Wallace and Baier did their bloody job with poise and confidence.
There was clearly another aspect to the moderators’ job description at this GOP debate, however, and that was to show these aspirants to power who is really the boss. And in case there’s any lingering doubts, that’s the Koch Brothers. Candidates who were excluded from or performed poorly at the Kochs’ recent ‘personal primary‘ came in for noticeably tougher questions from the Fox panel. Donald Trump in particular has stood out from the Republican crowd as the sole candidate who was rich enough to be his own wealthy backer, leaving out the usual begging for campaign finance that has made multi-billionaires like Charles and David Koch the de facto leaders of the conservative movement (and has said so with his typical lack of tact calling the attendees of the Koch’s summit “puppets.” This seemed to single him out for a special kind of venom from the event’s moderators. Kelly, in particular, wasted no time in coming for Trump’s legendary hair with a proverbial tomahawk, starting the debate by recalling his insulting characterizations of women he didn’t agree with as “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.” Follow ups focused on his abortion track record and lack of conservative social values, asking pointedly “When did you actually become a Republican?”
In this job, however, Kelly and her fellow executors of the Koch’s hatchet-work failed miserably. Throughout the debate and in today’s post-game analysis, Trump remains at the top of the polls in spite of the fact that he seemed determined to write the best captions for his own parody-gifs,his most quotable soundbites being unintentional self-descriptions like “Our politicians are stupid”; “Our country is in trouble” and “What am I saying?” He even responded to Kelly’s “fat pig” question by clarifying: “…only Rosie O’Donnell.”
There were many more moments worth analyzing. Fox moderators put God at the center of the debate, asking candidates point blank if they’d had a word with the almighty and although there were only 4 questions on the word of God (versus 10 on foreign policy–see a breakdown of the questions per topic via Fivethirtyeight) they still possibly violated the U.S. Constitution, which as online commentators pointed out, states in Article VI, paragraph 3 that “no religious test shall ever be required” to qualify for public office. God also came up in Dr. Ben Carson ‘s platform, who said religious tithing would be the basis for his tax policy. It would not be a stretch, however to say that Carson only had one job scripted for him in the particular bit of political theater, which was to bring a veneer of diversity and racial inclusiveness to the Republican conversation. In that role, he performed only slightly better than Kelly’s dump-Trump questions. While he resonated when relating that his experience as a neurosurgeon caused him to focus on “the part that makes us who we are” [our brains, rather than our skin], he did so in a deflection of the need to address race and social justice in the year of #BlackLivesMatter. Charles Blow summed it up best when he commented in real time: “Carson responds, make eloquent comment about the absurdity of the existence of race; makes equally absurd statement about the existence of RACISM!”
In the only other nod to what many would characterize as the issue of the year (yes, race relations merited only 2 questions, joining marriage equality at the very bottom of the debate’s agenda) Koch Brothers’ darling Scott Walker received a softball question on Black Lives Matter and police brutality, to which he gave an equally soft-pedaled non-reply about addressing police training. Black twitter erupted when this soundbite was followed by a Straight Outta Compton ad spot which actually devoted more airtime to the issue of police brutality in hawking Hollywood’s late summer blockbuster than did the debate. One can only assume that somewhere, a young Fox News assistant producer was laughing his ass off. Other memorable moments included a sneak-dis from Jeb Bush on big bruh George W. Bush‘s invasion of Iraq, breaking with the neo-con mantra of “history will vindicate us” by admitting that the pre-emptive war was a mistake in retrospect. However, the main takeaway of the night seems to be that Trump (who received more airtime than any other candidate in the debate’s first half) is unstoppable for the moment. Whatever the Koch Brothers–or anybody–thinks, his particular combination of wealth, don’t-give-a-fuck attitude and Charlie-Sheen-#Winning trainwreck spectacle clearly make him a) Republican front-runner and b) a godsend to the Democrats…not to mention c) America’s worst nightmare if he wins.