Fox News Debate, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump

Image courtesy of Fox News

A Chaotic Republican Debate in the Fox Theater, Detroit

| published March 4, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Only a few days after businessman Donald Trump won seven out of 11 states in the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses—thus sparking an apocalyptic panic among the Republican establishment and GOP leaders—and only hours after former Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney launched a blistering attack on Trump, in essence calling the billionaire a harbinger of destruction for the GOP, the four remaining candidate met on stage in Detroit, Michigan.

The debate in the cavernous Fox Theater in Detroit—aired live on Fox News—turned heated, extremely bitter, and downright personal right out of the gate, and within the first minutes it was clear that front-runner Trump and challenger Marco Rubio intended to treat the debate as a clear and present opportunity to bludgeon each other. Within another ten minutes, it became even clearer that for the three remaining non-Trump candidates, it was a far greater waste of energy to attack each other, and far more useful to combine their ordnance on Trump.

To describe it as scorched-Earth would be an insult to “The Scouring of the Shire,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s quasi-apocalyptic penultimate sub-chapter in the epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Rubio, along with Texas Senator Ted Cruz and some indirect name-non-specific attacks by Ohio Governor John Kasich, unloaded on Trump in what amounted to the most brutal tag-team assault yet. The analogies on social media were both amusing and visceral. One friend in New York called it “like watching the combined military forces of Japan attacking Godzilla in some model-maker’s stop-action wet dream from 1969.” Another described it as a “pack of vampire hunters, armed to the teeth, hurling everything they have at the dark master.”

This, the Republican’s 10th debate—and, if Trump has anything to say about, likely the party’s last major forum—may have been the most brutal and chaotic yet, with candidates almost immediately abandoning pledges agreed to earlier in the week in which they promised to play fair, avoid name-calling, and stick instead to the issues at hand (whatever those are in this context). Instead, the debate devolved into the worst barroom brawl yet, and may have at times stopped only seconds short of outright physical violence.

Among its dubious highlights—some coming within the first 20 minutes—a ferocious bickering match over the physical characteristics of each candidate, from Rubio’s penchant for sweating to Trump’s alleged pants-wetting episode to Rubio’s short stature to Trump’s hands (Trump, in what may have been the first ever reference to genital size in a Presidential debate, assured the audience and those watching that there was no correlation between his relatively small hands and his…ummm…whatever. “I assure you I ‘m fine,” Trump said dourly, adding “I guarantee you there’s no problem there.”

The debate also included the worst name-calling yet, with Trump referring to Rubio as “Little Rubio,” and Rubio retorting by calling the billionaire “Big Donald,” and later with Trump repeatedly referring to Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted” or “Lying Teddy.” Barroom brawl indeed. This wasn’t even political war by the traditional and occasionally noble literary definition—this was a playground riot.

And despite a tenacious attempt by Fox News moderators Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace to maintain control of the room, things quickly got out of hand, especially as it became apparent that the other candidates were each drawn together with the one common goal of bringing down the great Trump dirigible. Though there were plenty of fireworks and flamethrowers in use, there was no specific crash.

And in an ironic twist which may reveal the growing sense that Trump’s nomination is solidifying into reality, a difficult question raised by Megyn Kelly at the end of the debate sparked the most intense media discussion: would the candidates on that stage pledge to support Trump if he is their party’s nominee? Though all made it clear they hope to be the eventual nominee, all answered a reluctant yes, agreeing that they would support Trump if he were the party’s designated challenger to Clinton. It was clearly a breathtakingly searing moment, as all conceded that Trump—no matter the depth of the disruption he has caused the GOP—would be a better choice than the former Secretary of State for the desk in the Oval Office.

Before Trump and Rubio lashed into each other for control of the stage, Fox News moderator Chris Wallace raised the issue of Mitt Romney’s well-broadcast comments from earlier in the day. Wallace briefly recounted a few of Romney’s most scathing remarks, including Romney’s assertion that Trump was a bully, a phony, a con man, and a panderer.

Trump responded as he did earlier in the day at an appearance in Portland, Maine, only an hour after Romney spoke at the University of Utah. Trump told the Detroit audience that he felt Romney was unqualified to judge the current front runner, and asserted that Romney had choked in 2012, losing an election that should have rightly belonged to the GOP. Trump dismissed Romney’s attacks as irrelevant and pointless.

The real estate mogul’s attempts to wave off Romney’s critical speech did not, however, mitigate the bombardment he received from his three opponents on stage, now deeply committed to what amounts to all-out-war against Trump—an anti-candidate with a seemingly limitless ability to convert voter frustration into votes.

Rubio and Cruz each hit Trump hard on not merely the “issues” per se, but also on his fitness to serve as President and his understanding of the complex problems which Presidents routinely face. From immigration to health care, from cutting spending to trade war, the others on stage engaged in a relentless bombardment of Trump, who was often forced into a two-sided fight. Cruz and Rubio also attacked Trump on his many flip-flops and reversals on some key issues, again ranging from trade deals to taxes to immigration policy (for example, Trump initially supported allowing Syrian refugees to enter the United States, then reversed himself weeks later).

Echoing the themes established earlier in the same day by Romney, who called Trump’s many business practices examples of how the real estate kingpin alternates between bad business decisions and outright scamming, the candidates pounded Trump on the vast controversies surrounding Trump University, currently still caught in a complex set of civil suits and class action lawsuits, and charged with scamming people out of tens of thousands of dollars for useless “degrees.” Rubio and Cruz also hit Trump on his preference at some hotel and casino properties to hire mostly foreign guest workers instead of U.S. citizens, a decision which Trump defended as being reasonable since the alternative was to temporarily hire Americans instead.

Trump also shrugged off intense pressure by both the Fox News moderators and his on-stage opponents to agree to the release of the New York Times interview tapes—off-the-record conversations he recently had with the Times editorial board in which Trump allegedly conceded to having far more “flexible” and moderate positions on issues ranging from immigration to border security to the border wall. The implication of the NYT interview, according to reporters and to candidates Cruz, Rubio and Kasich, is that as a candidate Trump is knowingly expressing extreme views which, in fact, he has no intention of acting upon when he becomes chief executive.

Some sources who have heard portions of the “off-the-record” chat say that on the tapes Trump can also be heard waving off his true commitments to several other issues as well, including taxes, jobs growth, the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, and even health care. Cruz and Rubio each seized upon Trump’s refusal to authorize the release of the interview tape as prima face evidence that he is engaged in a charade for the benefit of the American people. Trump says the interview was of no consequence, and told the moderators that he will not consider releasing that material.

It wasn’t just the other candidates on that stage in Detroit that hit Trump hard on his alleged flip-flops and “flexible” positions. Fox News framed several questions for Trump by first playing videotaped footage of Trump in various news interview venues, often supporting a position, then, reversing himself dramatically weeks or months later. Using Trump’s own words, it was clear that Fox moderators like Wallace and Kelly had planned ahead in an effort to outflank Trump’s frequent slippery verbal maneuvers and outright rejections of his own statements. The video clips, while stopping just short of being ambushes, nevertheless put Trump in the awkward position of having to explain his sometimes dizzying reversals on key issues.
Fox News Debate, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump
Though under normal circumstances this would make any other candidate running for President visibly uncomfortable, Trump attempted to again shrug off the contradictions, soon adopting what became his core mantra of the night—he is a flexible guy who will get results by being flexible. Trump explained that it has always been his skill as a negotiator that he helped him succeed in business, not a misplaced desire to draw a line in the sand which can never be crossed. Trump conceded that he may sometimes “soften” his positions on some issues, and may be “changing” on others. Rubio and Cruz each attempted to seize Trump’s use of these words to call into question the billionaire’s fidelity to any issue, at any time.

When Cruz told Trump that by releasing the tapes for the press and the public he could put to rest worries that he (Trump) is "a liar," Trump snapped back.

“You’re the liar,” Trump said, “I’ve given my answer, Lyin’ Ted.”

Cruz and Trump also bickered feverishly over who supported whom for the Supreme Court, especially in the context of the appointment of Chief Justice John Roberts, whom Trump said was promoted heavily by Cruz. The fracas over the court triggered a round of cross-talk and name-calling which spiraled out of control before the moderators were able to reclaim the floor.

If the multi-pronged, multi-adversary attacks during the 2-hour plus debate had the goal of toppling Trump, all involved may have fallen short of their collective goal. Trump remained defiant, upright, and seemingly just as glib as before. He also seemed happy to continue swatting away what he clearly regards as minor nuisances along his path toward the White House.

From a process perspective, Trump appears to be gaining the upper hand. As some political observers have pointed out, no amount of retirements from the once-crowded field have brought about the desired effect of denying Trump votes, or even reducing his “ceiling” in polls and primaries. Most ominously for the GOP, Trump is now beginning to channel support even from groups previously seen as wary of—even hostile to—Trump’s campaign narrative: in Nevada, then in several Super Tuesday states, Trump managed to draw measurable support from Latinos and Hispanic voters, from Asian voters, from women, from religious minorities, from college students, from upper income and lower income voters, from those with college degrees and those without, even from registered Republican African-Americans—a rarified subgroup seemingly drawn like so many others to Trump’s appeal to frustrations, fears, and anger at Washington.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders and GOP establishment figures are attempting, some would say too late perhaps, to craft a strategic, full scale counter attack to Trump. The agreed upon plan so far involves at least denying Trump wins in several upcoming big-ticket states, including Florida—which insiders hope can go to Rubio, and Ohio, which could tilt to Kasich. By deploying a similar strategy across the map, state-by-state, in theory at least, Republicans could starve Trump for delegates—in essence kicking the can down the road and into the doors of the convention in Cleveland this summer.

A fine strategy, but what then? A convention floor fight: the first seen in contemporary times since the Democratic convention of 1968, and the first for the GOP since brawling Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964.

On the other hand, planning for such a live T spectacle might be fantasy. If Rubio loses to Trump in Florida (Trump currently leads in many Sunshine State polls by 14% to 21%), and Kasich fails to take his home state of Ohio, Trump’s march to the nomination may be unstoppable.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Mitt Romney Offers Blistering Repudiation of Donald Trump; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; March 3, 2016.

Cruz and Rubio Spar Over Who is Genuine Anti-Trump ; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; March 3, 2016.