The GOP Debate: Donald Trump and the Disappointments

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Republican presidential candidates arrive onstage for the Republican presidential debate.Photo: MANDEL NGAN

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: The GOP’s first debate, Joe Biden’s prospects as a presidential candidate, and television after Jon Stewart.

At the GOP forum in New Hampshire on Monday, where the Republican presidential field appeared without Donald Trump, they came off as stiff and underprepared.  Did any of the candidates come alive last night at the Fox News debate, where Trump was center stage?

If the candidates are dull and unfocused without Trump as a foil, they don’t exactly shine when they are arrayed beside him like lesser planets orbiting a flaming sun. The one candidate who seemed fresh last night — perhaps because he’s had the least national exposure to date — was John Kasich. His policy positions were drawn from his actual experience in governing rather than some hastily scrambled debate-prep CliffsNotes. He came across as avuncular rather than angry (Cruz, Huckabee, Christie) or pissy (Rubio and Paul). Kasich was the only one onstage who addressed Trump’s appeal as a serious matter even while making it clear he wanted little to do with Trump. He is also the only national Republican opposed to gay marriage who doesn’t come across like a bigot. But does Kasich have a real chance of breaking into the top tier with a Republican primary electorate that loathes government and rewards bomb throwers in the Palin–tea party mold? That may depend in part on the fate of the three candidates now ahead of him in vying for what we might call the adult Republican slot: Rubio, Bush, and Walker. (It cannot be called the moderate Republican slot; all of the contenders are highly conservative.)

Rubio, who struck me as a tedious crooner of standard-issue GOP boilerplate, got high marks from conservative commentators last night. That seems wishful thinking from Republicans who desperately hope his presence on a ticket will miraculously attract Hispanic voters to a party where xenophobia has been raging for more than a decade. It’s the same conservative magical thinking that is bringing excess praise to Carly Fiorina for her performance in yesterday’s Fox News pre-show, the losers’ debate. Keeping her front and center, the theory goes, would inoculate the GOP against future accusations of countenancing a “war on women.” Good luck with that. The latest Wall Street Journal–NBC News poll found that Planned Parenthood, even after the most recent bombardment by the right, has a higher favorability rating than anyone running for president in either party and is viewed almost as favorably among Independents as it is among Democrats.

As for Bush, he was dreadful. He doesn’t think clearly. He doesn’t speak clearly. The mere mention of the word Iraq reduces him to gibberish — as does any mention of his brother. He has no passion. In one answer he marshaled the phrases “lift our spirits” and “We can do this!” with all the conviction of a robocall. Jeb is considered “wonky” by Republican standards, and given those fallen standards, maybe he is. But Hillary Clinton would eviscerate him in any debate over substance. I continue to believe that Bush is a hollow construct, no matter how much money or Establishment muscle keeps trying to prop him up.

Walker remains Wisconsin bland. He came across as an anti-abortion zealot whose musings about foreign policy are so shallow they could be accurately described as content-free. Asked about Arab countries that might partner with America, Walker had little to offer beyond naming them: “You look at Egypt … You look at the Saudis …” And you see what, exactly? He’s not saying. A particularly absurd moment came when Walker was seen nodding in agreement with Ben Carson’s own ignorant spouting of memorized foreign-policy bromides. It was the blind leading the halt.

Carson, by the way, distinguished himself by evincing less energy onstage than Bush — not an easy feat. Paul, whose weird energy isn’t wearing well, is shriveling before our eyes. At one point he said he was “a different kind of Republican” because he had visited Ferguson, Detroit, Baltimore, and Chicago. Chicago — really, how brave can a Republican get? Also shriveled — at least metaphorically — is Chris Christie. The lowest moment, arguably, of the entire debate was his attempt to deflect criticism of his Obama hug by bragging about how he’d hugged family members of 9/11 victims. Shamelessly wrapping yourself in 9/11 didn’t work for Rudy Giuliani in 2008, and it certainly isn’t going to work eight years later for a governor whose failed record at home has turned his own constituents against him. Christie seems to know he’s done. Next to a Broadway-size pugilist like Trump, his mad-as-hell persona comes across as a suburban community-theater knockoff.

The story of the Republican race for now remains Trump. Or as Trump would say, “Trump Trump Trump.” Megyn Kelly, one of the sharper debate moderators seen on any network in recent years, was relentless and focused in her attempts to push him to explain his record as an insult artist and former sort-of Democrat. But logic and facts don’t deter Trump. He doesn’t care about the details. That’s what he has flunkies on the payroll for. He doesn’t care whom he offends. He began the night by insulting the party whose nomination he seeks, refusing to pledge loyalty to the GOP in 2016. He defended his history of sexist insults by assaulting Rosie O’Donnell. After that, his own energy began to wane; the format itself restrained his bull-in-a-china-shop antics. Many in the political class concluded he’s peaked. This may be more wishful thinking. Wasn’t Trump’s attack on John McCain’s war record supposed to mark the end of his boomlet? His poll numbers have only gone up ever since.

If the recent whispers from unidentified “supporters” and “friends” of Joe Biden tell us anything new, it’s that Biden’s camp has begun seriously probing how the public would respond to the idea of a presidential run.  How would Biden fare if he enters the race?

The Biden-for-president tsunami expresses internal Democratic anxiety about Hillary Clinton’s lackluster campaign and perhaps her declining poll numbers. But there’s nothing to suggest that Biden could seriously challenge her for the nomination. She has the money and the organization; the differences in their political views are slight. But a vice-president is nothing if not standby equipment. Were Hillary to falter for any reason, Biden remains the only Plan B of the Democratic Party. And hearing Trump stipulate last night how he essentially paid the Clintons to turn up at his wedding (or at least one of his weddings) — a trivial but resonant example of the Clintons’ post–White House quid-pro-quo mercantilism — reminds us of how many potholes there may yet be between Hillary and her presumed coronation. Meanwhile, Biden, if he’s wise, can remain above the fray without risking the rancor, hard work, and likely humiliation of a primary campaign against the Clinton machine.

Jon Stewart ended his 16-year Daily Show run last night — as fate would have it, immediately after his nemesis, Fox News, broadcast what may be the most highly rated primary debate in history.  What do you think will be Stewart’s most important legacy?

Not vanquishing Fox News, clearly. I agree with those who feel Stewart fundamentally changed television news as a whole, an achievement more lasting than his stalwart nightly critique of the Bush administration. Indeed, Stewart’s effect on the so-called mainstream liberal news-media has been far greater than his impact on the Roger Ailes freak show. He was merciless in taking on the Times for its enabling of the Iraq War. He made all standard-issue television news look irrelevant and silly. So much so that one network-news anchor (and frequent guest on his show) was tempted into destroying his career by trying to market his own brand of fake news.

Can anyone who watched Stewart’s Daily Show look at CNN’s Situation Room with a straight face? Or take seriously those moments on any of the evening newscasts where a somber anchor quizzes a field correspondent? Stewart demolished the entire genre. What’s more, he introduced America to a talented protégé, John Oliver, who is now in the midst of reinventing television news and the satire of television news simultaneously. We have many reasons to thank Jon Stewart and to wish him a fulfilling next act where he will never have to think of Fox & Friends again.