After completely transforming the 2016 GOP primary, Donald Trump, on Thursday night, pulled off the season’s most dramatic showdown so far simply by refusing to show up for an event. Everyone agreed that Trump’s competing rally was boring, but perhaps that wasn’t the performance we were meant to focus on. As The New York Times’ Frank Bruni noted, Trump’s absence was the “most compelling presence” on the Fox News debate stage. “Trump was remembered. Trump was invoked,” Bruni said. “His ghost was there, because he’d reshaped his Republican rivals’ images, reconfigured the challenges in front of them, rewritten the rules of this extraordinary race.”
Making your ghostly presence felt is obviously an impressive feat, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Trump’s stunt was successful politically. According to the pundits, the Trump–Fox News debacle either proved that the front-runner is a political savant, or that he committed one of the “greatest tactical errors” by a politician ever.
Many commentators agreed with Bruni and gave the night to Trump. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias said Trump put on a “bravura debate performance,” though he wasn’t on stage:
The spirit of Trump and Trumpism was the dominant force of the evening even without Trump in the room. Ted Cruz reiterated his promise to “carpet bomb” ISIS regardless of the civilian casualty. Marco Rubio archly referred to his desire to bring back torture as a matter of American policy. Asked if he was worried about a rising tide of Islamophobic incidents in the United States, Ben Carson said simply that “we need to stop allowing political correctness to dictate our policies.”
Every candidate in the race — even the once sunny and multicultural Rubio — has adopted Trump’s essentially dark and pessimistic worldview. There’s no sense in this field that the economy is stronger than it was three or seven years ago, and there’s no sense that the world beyond America’s shores offers anything other than danger.
Another point for Trump: Days before the Iowa caucus, he forced his rivals to attack each other, while he emerged unscathed. The Nation’s John Nichols said it was obvious that Trump was smart to skip the debate — and not just because his own event generated “wall-to-wall coverage on the other cable news networks.”
Had he taken the stage with the rest of the candidates, Trump would have taken hits directly from them. He also would have had to stand by while they took shots at one another. They did just that: Cruz took shots at Rubio, Rubio took shots at Cruz, Bush took shots at Rubio, and Rand Paul took shots at everyone.
By skipping the debate, and letting the rest of the candidates argue among themselves, Trump avoided any potential damage — and he made it harder for the other contenders, especially Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich, to build on whatever momentum they might be accumulating as the key tests approach.
Speaking of the other candidates, most pundits felt they failed to fill the Trump-sized hole at the center of the debate. Joan Walsh, Nichols’s colleague at The Nation, wrote:
The debate illuminated the vacuum at the heart of the Republican Party that has been filled by Trump. None of the candidates have the combination of smarts, charisma, and backbone that leading the country usually requires. Their massive cave-in on immigration, a sop to their nativist base, was the clearest example of their abdication of responsibility to govern, but foreign policy, where everyone pledged to kill ISIS deader than the other, but nobody said how, was a close second. Trump’s absence is likely to make GOP hearts grow fonder. At any rate, nobody did anything to stop his momentum on Thursday night.
Bruni added that Rubio missed yet another opportunity to become the candidate everyone predicted he would be:
Political observers have been waiting for Rubio’s breakout moment, and many predicted that he’d have it at this debate. He didn’t. Put frequently on the defensive, he reverted to lines he’d used before and nuggets from his stump speech, and he kept returning to ISIS and military might, military might and ISIS. He came across as overly programmed, one-dimensional and itchy to go to war.
Others, like Slate’s Jim Newell, said Ted Cruz was the most disappointing candidate onstage:
Cruz had his worst debate at a time when polls suggest he’s fallen well behind Trump in Iowa. Unless organizing can make up the shortfall, he needs to make something happen in the few days left. But instead of commanding the stage and hammering the absent front-runner, Cruz turned in a sloppy performance consisting of flat jokes, whining to the moderators, whining to the moderators as a set up for flat jokes, and taking substantive poundings from his rivals—and from Fox News itself … Cruz on Thursday night wasn’t the dominating presence he needed to be. He was just another one of the people losing to Donald Trump.
And don’t forget about the two candidates who actually sided with Trump in his war on Fox News. On Newsmax TV, Michael Reagan panned undercard debaters Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who won the last two GOP Iowa caucuses, for playing along. “They’re not going to win another caucus at all,” he said. “They shouldn’t even be in the debates — and then to go and give credibility, or try to give credibility to Trump, Trump had to be laughing all the way back to his plane.”
There was one candidate who was almost universally praised for turning in a
good … er, less-bad performance than usual: Jeb Bush. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza summed up his night:
If you had any doubt about how much Donald Trump is in Jeb’s head, this debate should have cleared it up. The former Florida governor was, from the get go, more relaxed and more forceful in this Trump-less debate than he has been in the previous six debates where Trump was included. He owned his family’s political legacy unapologetically. He fought Rubio to a draw in an immigration back and forth. He regularly was the only candidate — aside from Paul — who answered the questions asked of him. Jeb is still a somewhat (ok, very) awkward candidate — his halting closing statement was painful — who doesn’t really like going on the attack. But, without Trump looming over him, Bush looked positively presidential.
Fellow Post journalist Stephen Stromberg agreed that Bush was the only candidate who put on a “halfway decent” show. Though, he couldn’t say exactly why:
Maybe Donald Trump’s absence gave Bush a confidence boost — or at least permitted him to get a word in edgewise. Perhaps Bush, with little to lose at this point, relaxed. Or maybe he is just more polished after months of campaigning. Whatever the reason, he spoke with more conviction and dominated the stage at several points in the debate. And he used some of those moments to bring policy specifics and high principles into an otherwise dismal conversation.
And he thinks it’s too late for Bush to “rescue his flailing candidacy.”
The Weekly Standard’s Jonathan V. Last felt the candidates’ generally mediocre performances were actually Fox News’s fault:
… the Fox crew ran a strange debate: They asked very few questions about the frontrunner; they queued up flip-flop highlight reels for some candidates, but not others; they paid homage to liberal shibboleths like climate change and Kim Davis; they devoted time to silly YouTube question about America’s supposed climate of Islamophobia from a Bernie Sanders supporter.
The result was something of a muddle, with none of the candidates prosecuting the case against Trump. Instead, they all acted as if they were in an interregnum which had nothing to do with the campaign both behind it and in front of it. It’s as if they thought that because Trump was gone for a night, he was vanquished from the field. This seems like a terrible miscalculation.
Though most commentators felt Megyn Kelly, the journalist at the center of this week’s debacle, came off well. Writing (perhaps not coincidentally) for Fox News, Erick Erickson called Kelly the debate’s “ultimate winner”:
After days of being beaten up by the Trump forces, she showed she is a sharp, credible journalist who is willing to ask tough questions and hold the candidates accountable for their prior statements. The video montages and prior records of the candidates were fair game and she forced them to answer.
And the Post’s Chris Cillizza noted that she managed to perform under a tremendous amount of pressure:
There has rarely been a debate moderator who has come under as much scrutiny as Kelly has during the course of this campaign. Despite all of that negative attention, Kelly showed why she is the face of Fox News on Thursday night. She was pointed, tough and well versed on the issues. And, more important to me? She showed her sense of humor and a willingness to not take herself too seriously. That she performed so well with so many eyes on her speaks incredibly highly of her abilities.
But if Fox News won, doesn’t that mean Trump lost? A handful of pundits argued that point, noting that Trump’s competing event was tremendously dull, despite all the publicity. The Atlantic’s Yoni Appelbaum said:
It might have been interesting to watch Trump’s grimaces and facial contortions as his own flip-flop reel played. But he avoided awkward questions on his own, far-longer list of substantive reversals. Standing alone on stage at his veterans’ event across town, though, Trump appeared equally diminished by the absence of his rivals. He brought Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee up to join him, before yielding the podium to veterans for half an hour. The other cable-news networks cut away from their live coverage, and the rally wound down to its anti-climactic end while the debate remained in full swing.
Dick Morris took the most extreme anti-Trump stance, declaring on Newsmax TV that he “missed a huge opportunity” and allowed Cruz to consolidate his position as the front-runner. He wondered why Trump let the debate go on without him, since he’s “not stupid,” and speculated that Trump was worried that he’d be hit hard on his abortion flip-flop.”He has a good chance to win,” he said, “but he committed one of the greatest tactical errors I’ve ever seen a candidate do in a campaign.”
So, is there anything positive to say about the GOP’s chaotic display? The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol tried to find a silver lining:
Could the consequence of the debate be to begin the deflation of the Trump balloon? I’ll grant that I may be indulging in wishful thinking, but I think so. If you were an undecided Iowa voter, or a leaner one way or another, I think you saw something to like in one or more of the candidates on the stage. I don’t think you recoiled from the spectacle and said, “I want Donald.” The national media is enraptured with the narrative of The Triumph of Trump, so they’ll want to say that he was the winner in absentia. But I think for actual Republican voters, especially in Iowa, he was simply in absentia. And I don’t think absence made the heart grow fonder. I suspect absence made the heart start to question why it was interested in Trump in the first place.
This time, we only have to wait until Monday to find out if he’s right.