GOP debate: Fox tries to dump the Trump

Debate moderators Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly, and Bret Baier did their best to trap Trump.

Debate moderators Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly, and Bret Baier did their best to trap Trump.

Clown car, political reality show, Roman circus. There’s no shortage of derisive and colorful descriptions of the first official Republican debate.

Every pundit and political consultant is weighing in about “what it all means.” Who’s up, who’s down, who won, who lost, who failed, who succeeded (besides Fox News, with a reported 24 million viewers). The biggest takeaway I can see is that Fox seems to realize that it (and the Republican Party as a whole) has unleashed a monster in frontrunner Donald Trump and is trying to put it back in the bag. But just like Pandora’s Box, once it’s opened, there’s no closing it again.

The debate started with a Trump trap: What candidates would consider an independent run? Only Trump raised his hand, all the while claiming he thinks he’ll be the GOP nominee anyway. Fox’s Megyn Kelly kept stirring the pot with a question about Trump’s repeated use of insulting and sexist Twitter language about women. He tried to sidestep his insults with his usual complaints about “political correctness,” and many in the GOP-friendly audience applauded him.

There were more tough questions from the three moderators, to Trump (and other candidates, too). Chris Wallace pressed Trump about his multiple bankruptcies, which he shrugged off with a “business as usual” kind of answer. Trump was queried on why he had given money to Democrats and when he actually became a Republican. The moderators demanded answers and evidence of Trump’s claims about criminals crossing the Mexican border.

Trump’s answers were nonsense, empty of actual policy, and full of falsehoods, but that’s nothing new. What is new is that, after years of letting Trump blow off steam, running off at the mouth when he called into Fox & Friends on a regular basis or during his many appearances on the cable news network, Fox has finally realized that he’ll be a losing entity in the general election. As the Republican nominee, he would lose to any Democrat. As a third-party candidate, he likely would draw more votes from the eventual GOP nominee.

So what is Fox to do, with its symbiotic relationship with the Republican Party? Hit him hard. But did it do any good? No doubt we’ll have a plethora of polls before you can change the channel.

I reached my quota of Fox News exposure toward the end of the debate, once Kelly started on the “God” question, which reached a new low even for Fox. During talks with a voter panel afterward, GOP consultant Frank Luntz framed everything about the Donald in negative terms. And even then, many on the panel of GOP voters were still pro-Trump.

If anything, the debate exposed even more how thin-skinned Trump is. His Twitter account let loose with a flurry of anti-Kelly tweets: “Wow! @megynkelly really bombed tonight.” Trump called Luntz a “low-class slob who came to my office looking for consulting work and I had zero interest.”

Will any of this matter in the short run? People who liked Trump before may still like him now, although you’ve got to think that his true nature was exposed to some women voters.

Some other candidates exceeded expectations, such as Carly Fiorina in the JV debate. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who apparently drank enough water ahead of time, sounded like he had done his homework. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, buoyed by a hometown crowd in Cleveland, sounded like a reasonable adult, especially in his answers about marriage equality and Medicaid expansion. Even if that might alienate GOP voters.

Others got into snippy shouting matches, like Tennessee Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker sounded underprepared. Former Florida Gov. Jeb! Bush didn’t blow it, but he sounded muddled and muted.

Rick Perry solidified his “oops” reputation by not remembering how long he served as governor and calling the 40th president “Ronald Raven.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee thinks fetuses have constitutional rights, wants to introduce a “pimp” tax, and said, “The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things.” Neurosurgeon Ben Carson apparently wants to start up the torture program again.

So what did we learn? Not much. No candidates revealed much of anything in the way of policy or proposals; it was too tempting to bash former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Iran nuclear deal, and pretend that President Obama hadn’t rescued the economy that Jeb!’s brother trashed.

Many on the left complained about the lack of questions about issues of income equality, the Black Lives Matter movement (there was a half-hearted one toward the end, with a half-hearted answer from Walker), and other issues that progressives care about. Hello? This was a debate on FOX NEWS. You really think they’re going to ask if CEOs should be paid less?

At least we have a month until the next debate. And, in case you were wondering, most of the news stories about the debate focus on — Donald Trump.

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