This past Thursday, the last Republican debate before the primary voting begins was held in Iowa, hosted by FOX News. Thanks to Donald Trump’s announcement that he would not participate and would instead hold his own event in Iowa, there was probably as much attention paid to peripheral issues as to the debate itself. I was looking forward to the prospect of a new and improved Trump-free debate, but I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if Mr. Trump had come barging down the aisle with a marching band 15 minutes into the proceedings to make everything fabulous and terrific again. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, giving us more of an opportunity to hear what the other candidates had to say about various issues.
On a side note, I was disappointed to learn that Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum had decided to attend Trump’s event after their earlier debate concluded. Considering their levels of support in the polls, perhaps they just felt the need to take any available opportunity to appear before a crowd in the last days before the caucuses, but it is unfortunate that two long-time social conservative leaders chose to associate themselves with Donald Trump at this time.
Overall, I thought that the moderators conducted an interesting and informative debate. I realize that it wouldn’t be possible to cover everything in a couple of hours, but it seemed that, once again, there were many important topics that were either mentioned only briefly or not brought up at all. Perhaps there would have been more time for discussion of things like entitlements, government spending priorities, judicial appointment philosophies, etc. if there were fewer questions related to the race itself, electabililty, criticism from opponents, and so on. These subjects aren’t irrelevant, but they should probably take a back seat to the candidates’ views on actual policies and problems facing the nation.
Donald Trump has complained about his treatment by FOX, and Megyn Kelly in particular, since the first debate and cited this as a reason for staying away this time. The FOX moderators have actually tended to spread their tough questions around among the candidates, but I don’t think the difficulty level was even close to equal for everyone. Pressing Chris Christie, for instance, to name something that could be eliminated from the federal budget can’t compare to the pummeling inflicted on Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz by playing video montages of their past inconvenient immigration-related statements and leaving them to try to explain how those square with what they are saying now. This was rather painful to watch and potentially harmful to the Senators. In the interest of fairness, perhaps FOX should also have shown a representative collection of Donald Trump’s contradictory or distasteful statements -- there would certainly be plenty from which to choose. Even though he wasn’t present and his supporters may not have been watching, he is still a candidate in the race and viewers would have gotten a more complete picture of the field. It doesn’t seem right that, by sparing Trump from the challenges of video vault journalism, FOX News may well wind up rewarding him for criticizing them and skipping their debate, especially since avoiding potential pitfalls at the event may have been Trump’s real goal all along.
I’ll just say one more thing about the moderating of the debate. Judging from the audience reaction, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t appreciate the rather biased-sounding wording when, in posing a question to Jeb Bush, Chris Wallace referred to Jeb’s brother “getting us into two wars.” As for Governor Bush himself, his debate performances have been improving as the campaign has progressed, and this one was his best yet. I don’t know how much the absence of his nemesis had to do with it, but Bush seemed pretty strong and confident, and perhaps this will earn him a second look from some voters.
Returning to Senators Rubio and Cruz, I don’t think that Thursday night went as well for either of them as they would have liked. In addition to the difficult immigration segment discussed above, they also faced considerable criticism from each other and the other candidates. Also, Cruz had an awkward squabble with Wallace over the rules, and his joke (alluding to Trump) about leaving the stage if asked any more mean questions didn’t seem to work very well. Rubio and Cruz did make good points during the debate, too, and both are still strong candidates. Hopefully, people will give more weight to those positive things than to the negative aspects of the evening.
By the end of Monday, we’ll have the first results of the 2016 primary season. While I still have a day to do a little wishful thinking before reality takes over, I’m hoping that the people of Iowa will make good decisions and cast their votes for qualified, worthy candidates rather than for the “outsider” showman that’s been leading the polls for so long. If someone other than Donald Trump is the victor in Iowa, perhaps the leads he’s had in other states can be overcome as well. If Trump wins, though, I’m afraid he may well dominate the primaries and caucuses, and that would be a terrible outcome. I’m sure I’ll be doing a lot of finger crossing Monday night....