Well, that was kind of like watching a basketball game that had 10 teams. But hey—the questions were good. They were surprisingly tough. But were they evenly tough? That’s an interesting question. Let’s take a quick look at who was asked what, among the four top candidates. I kept track.
Donald Trump was asked eight questions, about: why he wouldn’t back the GOP nominee (which he of course brought on himself by volunteering that he might not); all the names he’s called women; what his evidence was for saying that Mexico is “sending” us its rapists; why he used to support single-payer; his four bankruptcies; why he was once pro-choice; whether his tone is appropriate in a president; the Iran deal.
Jeb Bush was asked six questions, about: dynastic politics; his previous Iraq faux pas; Common Core; his 4 percent growth pledge; being on that Bloomberg board (an abortion question); did he call Trump a “clown,” “buffoon,” or “asshole.”
Scott Walker (seven questions): the Wisconsin abortion bill that makes no exception for the life of the mother; his path-to-citizenship flip-flop; what more we could be doing with our Mideast allies; Wisconsin’s poor job growth; the Iran deal; police shootings; cyber war.
Marco Rubio (six questions): lack of experience; immigration; Common Core; how he’d help small businesses; what Megyn Kelly thought was his support for rape and incest exceptions for abortion; about God and veterans.
Lots of people seem to think that Rubio had a strong night. I would submit to you that the question list helps explain why. They lobbed a few massive softballs in his direction. For example, both he and Bush were asked about Common Core. But whereas to Bush this was a challenging question, because he’s swimming against the GOP tide on the question, to Rubio it was just, as a Senator, what do you think of what Governor Bush just said? The immigration and small-business questions were totally teed up. And God and veterans? They might as well have asked him if he loved his mother (which he answered anyway; he does).
The other top-tier candidates all got tougher questions. Seven of Trump’s eight questions could fairly be called confrontational or at least challenging. Five of Bush’s six were the same; maybe all six. Three of Walker’s seven. And just one or at most two of Rubio’s. And even those were only mildly so. The lack-of-experience question, for example, was an obvious set-up for him to launch into his future shtick, which he plans on making his main line of attack against Hillary Clinton should he be the nominee.
Now I’m not suggesting that there’s some Murdoch-orchestrated conspiracy here to elevate Rubio. Moderating a 10-candidate debate is probably a really hard thing to do. They surely drew up at least 20 questions for each candidate, knowing that they could only get to some of them, and of course they had to make sure that the questioning was evenly distributed. It’s a high-pressure gig, and the three of them—Kelly, Baier, and Wallace—did pretty well overall.
But it is a fact that they didn’t hit Rubio with any gotcha questions. Two possibilities spring to mind. They could have asked him about his hard-line Cuba position, which isn’t supported even by Cubans in Florida themselves, except those aged 65 and older. And if they’d really wanted to zing him, they could have brought up that hearing where he seemed to think that Iran and ISIS were allies and John Kerry had to explain politely that they weren’t.
In contrast, it seemed clear that they wanted to rake Trump over the coals. The opening question, about whether they’d all support the GOP nominee, was obviously aimed squarely at him, and he obliged them by affirming that no, he would not. Well, Trump’s the front-runner, and the front-runner should get tough questions. And Trump was pretty bad. He clearly didn’t prepare much, he wasn’t funny (and he can be), and he didn’t manage at all to do the one thing he really should have done, which was to say something, just one thing, that was substantive, that showed he had a surprising command of policy, so that the talking heads afterward would have been forced to say, “Hey, that Donald, give him credit, he showed us something new tonight.” He showed nothing new.
Bush was…okay. His task was to be the one who seized on any Trump stumble to communicate to people: See, I’m the real front-runner. But he never really did that. Walker was kind of a blank until almost the very end of the debate, when he pulled out that line about how Russia knows more about Hillary Clinton’s emails than the United States Congress.
As for the second tier: John Kasich probably had the best night. At least he managed to get an audience of conservatives to applaud the fact that he attended a gay wedding. That’s what a home-court advantage will do for you. But his saying that God’s unconditional love for him meant he should love a potentially gay daughter was the right way to do it.
And yes, I’m kind of surprised that I’m 860 words into this column and haven’t mentioned Ted Cruz. Now there’s a guy who needs a lot more than 60 seconds to find his rhythm.
Bottom line: Trump drops, Rubio gains. But the most interesting figure, even though he is personally quite boring, is Bush. When will he demonstrate that he actually deserves to be the one getting all these millions of dollars raised for him? He’s just a bet by moneyed class, not because of what he is, but because of what he isn’t (not Trump, not extremist). He wasn’t bad enough that any of the money people are going to panic. But if it were my money, I’d be shopping around.