Things fall apart when moderators become debaters and debaters become moderators. That’s the lesson from last night’s Iowa debate debacle in which Donald Trump proved present in his absence.
“I’m a maniac,” Ted Cruz joked at Trump’s expense, “and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly. And Ben [Carson], you’re a terrible surgeon. And now that we’ve got the Donald Trump portion out of the way…” “Don’t worry,” Marco Rubio reassured the moderators. “I’m not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me.”
Like most good debates, the debate over the debate strikes as more nuanced shades of gray than black-and-white heroes and villains. Donald Trump errs in seeking to play rebuttalist and referee. Fox errs in playing favorites while feigning fair and balanced.
In Trump’s defense, Megyn Kelly’s initial query in the previous Fox News debate came across as a taunt followed by a perfunctory question mark. While several Fox personalities give the billionaire more than a fair shake, the seated Fox moderators seemed not content this summer to leave the zingers to the pols standing on the stage.
If the network didn’t tip its hand in August, then certainly Roger Ailes’ playful jibe at The Donald’s refusal to debate now does. “We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president — a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings,” read a statement from Fox at once funny on its own and too juvenile when attached to the leading cable news network.
But Trump too often mistakes the Fourth Estate for campaign flacks, and reacts with measured outrage when journalists dare criticize him. He denied press credentials to the Des Moines Register in Iowa of all places and pressured ABC into shamefully cutting the Union Leader out of a New Hampshire debate. The latter once made a frontrunner cry; the frontrunner now makes the Union Leader cry foul.
Univision, embroiled in a nine-figure lawsuit with Trump, the Huffington Post, and other outlets also complain of exclusionary tactics by Trump’s campaign. The businessman-politician rebutted National Review’s “Against Trump” symposium at a South Carolina rally by using the words “morons,” “dummy,” and “stupid” to describe the various contributors, who included Princeton Ph.D. and Pulitzer Prize-winner George Will, former attorney general Edwin Meese, and five-time Jeopardy champion John Podhoretz.
Using the press as a punching bag provides catharsis. But when the candidate learns that the press hits back the politician inevitably throws in the towel on the live sparring session. That happened last night, and spinning no mas into a victory may prove beyond the considerable promotional talents of the man who hosted and hyped Tyson-Spinks.
A more generous interpretation posits that Trump sees through the pretense of partisans calling themselves journalists. If Mitt Romney had balked at Candy Crowley moderating his debate with Barack Obama, then the former Massachusetts governor might stand for reelection rather than sit on the sidelines. Trump reduced the debates from public services performed by cable networks to cynical gambits for higher ratings and increased advertising revenue. “Without me,” Trump tweeted, “they’d have no ratings.”
Sometimes it takes a gauche capitalist to see through the philanthropic fronts of people doing well by doing good. The ultimate showman can surely differentiate show from chautauqua. And through unequal time allotment and favored stage positions the made-for-TV debates focus the spotlight on the stars to the detriment of the supporting cast. Trump never complained about this unfairness.
Nine election cycles ago, Ronald Reagan took the opposite approach. To the media’s hostility, he opted to stand up rather than stand down. When during an 11th-hour New Hampshire debate Jon Breen, a Nashua Telegraph editor who previously labored for Gerald Ford in his 1976 race against the former California governor, ordered Reagan’s microphone shut off, a visibly angry Happy Warrior forcefully interjected: “I’m paying for this microphone, Mr. Green.” The crowd exploded and George H.W. Bush’s Granite State campaign imploded. The post-debate parking lot, political lore informs, exhibited “Bush for President” buttons littered about the ground.
Moderators who throw hardballs often give up home runs. When Megyn Kelly listed a litany of nasty labels thrown at women by Trump, The Donald stole the moment by saying “Only Rosie O’Donnell.” After Kelly earnestly pressed on her silly opening question, Trump, after adeptly deflecting through levity, adopted an equally effective scolding tone: “I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.”
Not having time for a Des Moines debate four days before the Iowa caucuses strikes as one of the more unconventional moves from a campaign thriving on clashes with convention.
Donald Trump missed his “I’m paying for this microphone” moment on Thursday. We learn if he pays for it come Monday.
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