After weeks of hype the first major political event of the 2016 presidential election cycle arrived on the evening of August 6, 2015—“The Fox News Presidential Debates.” The show, which was co-hosted by Facebook, opened at Quicken Loan Arena, known locally as “The Q,” with the camera going on at 5 PM ET with the seven not-ready-for-prime-time candidates, those who according to Fox News did not rank in the top ten of the five leading national polls they examined before the debate: Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki and Jim Gilmore.
Act I: The “Happy Hour” Warmup Debate
The most memorable moment with the sub-prime seven during their “Happy Hour” debate (a label embraced by Fox News) was the gaffe by the Fox News control room that allowed a camera on Rick Perry to lower a crossbar down on his head, as he responded with a stock answer to a question about immigration. Also memorable were the conspicuously empty seats noticeable in shots of the moderators, co-anchors Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum. The Q holds over 20,000 people when LeBron James is playing with the Cavs. However, when the Ohio Republican Party started to give away tickets to anyone requesting, on a first-come basis, they were shut down within 48 hours because Fox News limited the audience to 4,500—who were likely handpicked or screened by Fox News and invisible during the first debate, where there was no effort to place people in the empty seats they knew would appear in these moderator shots. The “Happy Hour” debate would be largely drained of emotion without an audience.
If I had to pick the candidate who helped their campaign the most during the event, it would be Carly Fiorina, who was relaxed, confident, and articulate. For those who do not know her, she has an impressive resume in the world of business: From a secretary to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Obviously she is a highly intelligent woman but does not do well going negative. In 2010 she was a formidable Republican candidate against Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, but many who watched that campaign (including me) thought she lost the election because she turned off voters when she became the Wicked Witch of the West if not an incurable RBF.
Fiorina was clearly scripted for the first GOP primary debate. Her thirty-second close was almost verbatim what she had written beforehand, which we know because (presumably) a staffer forgot to remove it from a Cleveland hotel printer, where it was found and tweeted by Sergio Gor, a spokesperson for Senator Rand Paul. Carly surely understands she has no chance of winning the GOP nomination; rather she is seeking to be the vice presidential nominee who can take on Hillary. But she is not good at that—in fact, terrible. Fiorina will not get the vice presidential nomination—nor if she did would she be of any assistance to the ticket—unless she learns to go negative without being so seemingly nasty and totally dislikeable. When not attacking Hillary, Carly established herself at this event as formidable and someone who could be an able vice president. She needs negative tutoring by someone like Michelle Bachman or Sarah Palin, both of whom have a certain charm when on the attack.
Act II: The Main Event—Trump Theater
For weeks, then days, then hours preceding the prime-time debate with the ten top ranking Republicans the event has been promoted largely on the celebrity of Donald Trump, the leading GOP candidate with all the finesse of a carnival barker. The wizard behind all the lead up to this prime time debate is Roger Ailes, the chairman and CEO of Fox News, who first teased who would and would not be included, until it came down to the final cut. We learned 52 hours before the debate that the top ten included, in addition to Trump, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; surgeon Ben Carson; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio; Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
From the outset this has been all about Trump, and how he would handle himself at the debate. It could not have been accidental that the first question asked of the ten men, who were to respond by a show of hands, if any would NOT pledge that they would run a third party or independent race for the White House if they did not get the GOP nomination. It was a question that, in fact, was only directed at one person: Donald Trump. Predictably, he raised his hand to indicate he would not pledge that he would not run such a race if he did not get the nomination, which as moderator Bret Baier pointed out meant that Trump would surely be assuring a Democratic victory in 2016. As Trump explained that he hoped he would not have to make an independent race, he sucked the oxygen out of the arena, which was now filled with people.
Surely this was carefully plotted by Roger Ailes, who knows as much about presidential campaigns as he does about television. But if there was any doubt that Ailes wanted to force Trump to be Trump, that was addressed in the first question to Trump from moderator Megyn Kelly. It was a mean question—the kind of question that would make you dislike Carly Fiorina because she would never have pulled it off, but Megyn looked gutsy going after Donald. Was it presidential for him to call women by ugly and vicious names, “You’ve called women fat pigs, dogs, slobs, disgusting animals? Your Twitter account has several—” Trump cut her off before she could finish. “Only Rosie O’Donnell,” he quipped, causing the audience to erupt in laughter, as well as the other candidates. Trump had stolen the first headline of the event, hooking the audience as Ailes wanted to do, by creating precisely the theater of the absurd the Fox News organization had worked so hard to produce. It only got better when Trump started threatening Megyn.
This first prime time debate was about one thing for Fox News—ratings, which means money. In fact, lest anyone forget that commercials were more important than the debate, as the event proceeded, commercials were actually running over the resumed debate, so the television audience was unaware of questions, like when Jeb Bush was being asked about abortion. This was a pure television spectacle, using Trump’s predictable behavior to pump up ratings. The only thing that is surprising is that Trump, who had to know how he was being used, did not demand a cut of the action from Fox News. Now that Trump has played the role that Ailes needed, no one should be surprised to see his poll numbers start to slip. While authoritarians might like Trump in the White House, fortunately there are not enough of them for that to happen.
Notwithstanding that this main event was pure Trump Theater, a number of the candidates helped and hurt themselves, while some, like Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul, neither helped nor hurt themselves. Those who did not help their candidacies were Ben Carson, who showed he was in over his head; and while he might have been a great brain surgeon and a nice man, he was not presidential timber. And Ted Cruz revealed himself to be a surprisingly shallow ideologue; while undoubtedly a coldly effective debate and appellate court advocate, he has zero charisma. Chris Christie showed that he is very competent on his feet as a politician and probably rekindled many Republicans interest in him, if not as president than as vice president. But the man who truly helped his race was John Kasich, whom many people met for the first time tonight, and, given the way he handled himself and his more moderate toned responses, many could surely envision him as a president.
While I am writing this before we see the ratings numbers, I have little doubt who won tonight: Fox News and Roger Ailes. This was a commercial venture, not a political event. To paraphrase a favorite passage, what happened at The Q tonight will be little remembered, and soon forgotten, as the 2016 presidential race continues. The Ailes genius demonstrated how to cash in big time on Republican politics, with at best a mediocre show. While we know that every Republican with the possible exception of Kasich is ready to go to war the first day he or she gets to the White House, the show certainly demonstrated again how uninformative contemporary presidential debates have become.