200 Minutes of GOP Presidential Candidates On Fox News Can Be Bad For Your Mental Health

They better “winnow” the Republican presidential field soon. Another afternoon/night like yesterday’s, with exposure to 200 minutes of Fox moderators and 17 GOP candidates, might just drive me to a late career switch into sports blogging.

If you skipped the whole show, you can go back and read my six posts of live-blogging or my summary of the “undercard” debate, or my quick 800-word take at TPMCafe, or my insta-reaction for Politico. Broadly speaking, I was most struck by the aggressive way in which the Fox News team assumed the position of partisan and ideological vetter of the field from the POV of conservative orthodoxy and candidate electability. At both events,there were a lot of questions that really boiled down to “let me hear how you’ll get elected with a position like that.” And the boldness with which the moderators blatantly aimed at taking down Donald Trump in the official debate was pretty amazing.

As for the “winners” and “losers” bit, there’s no question Carly Fiorina is being deliberately promoted to the Big Stage where GOPers wanted her all along to supply low-gender-politics-risk attacks on Hillary Clinton. I watched her yesterday and saw a former CEO used to doing power-point presentations for stockholders doing her standard speech, amplified by a very lucky question she got about Donald Trump. And for all the (justified) talk about the Fox moderators being tough on candidates, nobody’s asking Fiorina the obvious question about her extremely limited qualifications for the presidency.

Beyond that, I’m as mystified as anyone else about how last night will affect Donald Trump’s standing. The Fox people took a pretty high risk with the way they treated him; he now has all the justification he needs to conclude he’s being treated “unfairly” and can therefore go indie when it’s convenient for him. If the next few polls show him strong as ever, the GOP will need a new strategy for dealing with the man.

I’m also a bit mystified by all the wild praise today for Marco Rubio, but maybe I’ve just seen his earnest Second-Generation-American routine one time too many to be impressed any more. He got reasonably lucky in his questioning; the only heat he drew was over his alleged support for a rape exception to an abortion ban; he denied it, and used the question to position himself as a real RTL ultra, which is apparently what he wanted to do. At some point he may regret claiming the Constitution bans abortion, and I guarantee you that if he’s the nominee he won’t go around talking about “millions of babies” being murdered. Much as I dislike Jeb Bush, I thought his dosey doe on Common Core was the most successful answer of the night, but he’s being dismissed by most observers as a “loser.”

Two other random comments: (1) it was fascinating to watch Ben Carson gradually slip from being this genial non-politician uttering banalities to a scary person yammering about Saul Alinsky and dismissing objections to torture as “political correctness;” and (2) it was ingenious to see how efficiently the Foxies used doomed candidate Chris Christie to tear Rand Paul a new one. Again: the GOP’s own network performing a messy but necessary duty for the party.

The best analysis I’ve read so far this morning is from Michael Grunwald:

Mike Huckabee suggested he would defy the Supreme Court in order to ban abortion, because it’s “not the Supreme Being,” while Marco Rubio denied that he supports abortion rights for rape and incest victims, and Scott Walker defended his opposition to abortion when the mother’s life is at risk. Ben Carson came out for a tithe-like 10 percent across-the-board flat tax, because “God’s a pretty fair guy,” while Huckabee suggested he would tax “pimps, prostitutes and illegals” to raise money for Social Security. In the earlier debate among also-rans, Bobby Jindal said he would direct his Internal Revenue Service to investigate Planned Parenthood on Day One, which sounded like a potentially impeachable way to start a presidency.

None of those policy statements seemed particularly newsworthy last night, because Donald Trump didn’t make them, but they gave a fairly consistent sense of the Republican primary. Moderation does not appear to be a popular strategy.

Hasn’t been for a while, has it?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.