CNN did little to quell the impression that the world’s largest news network was aiming to create a combative debate atmosphere, and throughout, they were largely successful. That was a shame. In a field of 14 candidates hemmed to 11 on a debate field that placed candidates in uncomfortably close physical proximity, there was no need to provoke any further confrontation. The discourse emanating from the Republican candidates, dominated by the disruptive populist force of the Donald, has already featured more petty conflict than substantive exchanges on the issues.
But it was indeed that same source of small politics who was the focus of the blood sport that ensued in the first hour, with Jake Tapper eagerly egging on. In fact, it would not surprise us if CNN and the Republican Party purposefully engineered the debate to take Donald Trump to task. The audience tonight at the Reagan Presidential Library near Santa Barbara, California was composed of mostly establishment Republicans. The first question of the debate focused on how every candidate on stage would feel if Donald Trump had access to the nuclear codes. Tapper cited every candidates’ varied denunciations of Trump’s rhetoric and explicitly asked each to confront him.
But the candidates didn’t need much coaxing. Scott Walker proclaimed, “This is what’s wrong with this debate; we’re not talking about real issues,” and then immediately launched into a diatribe against Donald Trump’s credibility as a fiscal conservative. Carly Fiorina made Trump look as small as his words when she forcefully implied that Trump’s remark about her face was sexist. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” Tapper specifically pitted Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, against Trump’s belief in a link between vaccines and autism. And as the Donald blustered, provoked, and improvised his way through one uncomfortable volley of attacks after another, the focus moved on.
After the first hour of high conflict and low substance, the moderators eventually began to ask questions on foreign policy and national security, and Trump disappeared. He just as easily could have been off the stage for an hour until the moderators dragged him back into the fold to beat him right back down. Jeb Bush demanded that Trump apologize to his wife. Trump refused. His one notable foray into the foreign policy debate did not end well for him either. In a moment of poetic justice, Bush yet again had the opportunity to gain applause over Trump. As the Donald criticized President George W. Bush’s record, Jeb simply said, “My brother kept us safe” to the surprisingly warm reception of the audience. Trump was cowed.
And the longer the debate went on, the worse it went for Mr. Trump. Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, and Jeb Bush shone. Rubio was eloquent and compelling on foreign policy, and impressively so. His youth, his short career in the Senate, and his incredible record of absenteeism flash memories of John F. Kennedy. Carly Fiorina was the largest presence on the stage, her answers detailed, specific, and forcefully argued. Jeb Bush did his best and seemed to succeed at shaking off accusations of being “low energy,” emphatically high-fiving Donald Trump at one moment. Throughout, as exchanges became substantive and the second hour went into the third, Trump’s silence only further communicated how out of his depth the showman was. If CNN’s misguided goal to get candidates to confront each other achieved one thing, it was the deflation of the Donald.
Hopefully, this translates into something. Something meaning a shift in the polls from the bloated 27% national support Donald Trump pulled in the latest CBS/NY Times poll. The Roosevelt Society believes that the general spirit of the debate was unfair to President Obama and the democratic candidates. But regardless, as Trump sat silent at the center of the stage, the other candidates had a chance to flourish on a national stage. Any resulting loss of support for Mr. Trump would be a positive development for the health of American democracy.