2016 elections, Carly Fiorina, chattering class, Chris Christie, conservatives, debate, Donald Trump. Jeb Bush, Fox News, Hillary Clinton, Im-Politic, independents, Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Megyn Kelly, Mitt Romney, Obama, Rand Paul, Republicans, Rick Perry, Roger Stone, Ted Cruz
Three days after the event, I’m still struggling to get my analytical arms around that first Republican “front-runners’” presidential debate. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it took many more days and even weeks to gauge the effects. In part of course the problem is the so-called Summer of Trump, and the inherent difficulty in analyzing phenomena. But there’s also the matter of assessing the mood of those large numbers of Republicans, Republican leaners, independents, and others who clearly at various times have been drawn to Donald Trump’s campaign. Trump’s refusal to rule out a third party run in the fall elections is another huge complicating factor, as it’s bound to give pause to anyone determined to prevent a Democrat from winning the White House in 2016.
And let’s not forget the upteen other Republican candidates – including former Hewlett Packard boss Carly Fiorina and her supposedly breakout performance at a prior event for those GOP hopefuls considered the also-rans at this stage of the campaign, at least according to the polls. There were some of the questions from the Fox News moderators, which I found downright weird – and I’m not even talking solely or even mainly about Megyn Kelly asking Trump about his derogatory comments toward women, an exchange which of course then exploded into an even bigger uproar. Finally, since it’s still just so darned early in the cycle, making any predictions can be hazardous for any observer’s health.
Since Trump has dominated the Republican campaign so far, let’s start (and, for today, end) there. The place to begin is right at the beginning, with Fox News’ Bret Baier asking the front-runners (and Trump of course in particular) to promise to back the party’s nominee whoever it might be. Trump has explained his refusal in tactical terms – focusing on the importance of leverage – and has indicated that he could change his mind. But after eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, and the still strong possibility that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic race to succeed him, there can’t be any doubt that this wasn’t the answer many Republican primary voters – the chunk of the electorate Trump needs to win first – wanted to hear. Certainly the reaction of the boisterous crowd in Cleveland last Thursday night was decidedly mixed.
Concerns about Trump’s 2016 plans, moreover, are sure to reinforce Republican primary voters’ worries about his allegiance to conservative positions on issues like health care, taxation, and abortion. The GOP base isn’t thrilled with his campaign contributions to Democrats, either. Trump has responses: He’s “evolved” on the above, and other, subjects. He mastered the existing campaign finance system. Will these answers be convincing? Forecasting is further complicated by Mitt Romney’s experience in 2012. On the one hand, he won the Republican nomination despite charges that he was insufficiently conservative and a repeated “flip-flopper.” On the other hand, much of the Republican base now argues that, for these reasons, his nomination stuck the party with a loser.
Curiously, though, the rest of the Republican field is divided enough over some specific issues to render suspicious some of the silent pledges of party loyalty made last week. For example, would New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham (who was consigned to the also-ran event) endorse Kentucky Senator Rand Paul as long as the latter opposes using more electronic snooping by intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism? And given his strong stated belief that such measures grossly violate Constitutional protections against privacy, would Paul endorse those two if they stuck to their guns?
In addition, would any of the sitting Senators seeking the Republican nomination support their Texas counterpart Ted Cruz if he doesn’t apologize for calling their Senate leader Mitch McConnell a liar? Finally, would Jeb Bush or Graham or Rick Perry – all if whom have blasted Trump, the latter two in especially angry terms – really support Trump if he prevails? As the GOP field undergoes its inevitable winnowing, some of these questions are sure to come up.
Like everyone else, I’m still waiting to see the first major polls’ verdict, but I suspect that his attacks on Megyn Kelly will ultimately damage his campaign. The main reasons, though, have nothing to do with Kelly. Yes, she’s popular with conservatives. But my sense right now is that current Trump supporters and others receptive to his pitch and personality not only have no special feelings about Kelly, but probably started lumping her in with the rest of a media/chattering class that they despise because she asked precisely what they view as the kind of “gotcha” question now dominating journalism.
The worst damage could well come from two other sources. First, his exchange with Kelly and his follow-ups so far have added up to a major lost opportunity. Trump’s first instinct – to brush off the charges of women-hating with a joke about Rosie O’Donnell – was the right one. When Kelly persisted and pointed to insults directed at other women, he should have reminded her that he savages lots of men, too, and that he’s sure he’s stepped over the line in the past – especially in his role as an entertainer – just like all human beings have.
More important, he should have gone on the offensive by taking her to task for focusing on relative trivia rather than leading off with a question about a major issue voters care about – like jobs or national security. And even though Trump has now had several days to fine tune his “Megyn Kelly” message, he still hasn’t gone after her where her performance was most vulnerable. It’s still early in the 2016 campaign, but it’s far from too early for Trump to recognize that the longer he bogs himself down in personal – and trivial – feuds, and fails to deliver truly telling blows, the likelier he’ll start coming off as a simple, and increasingly uninteresting, crank.
Second, Trump’s trashing of Kelly suggests that, as many so-called political insiders believe, he’s got a big staffing problem. More specifically, he doesn’t seem to be working with anyone willing or able to tell him when he’s messed up. If Trump keeps surrounding himself only with Yes-Men, bet on him to suffer the same fate of other non-traditional office seekers. Like Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, he’ll fail to make the transition – not from phenom to “conventional politician,” but from phenom to “candidate with staying power.”
In this vein, the departure (or firing?) of longtime Republican operative (and Trump adviser) Roger Stone from Trump’s team could be a big turning point. And even though I think Americans so far owe Trump a debt of gratitude for highlighting policy catastrophes in areas like trade and immigration, a Trump collapse for this management-related reason would be good for the country – because that modus operandi is a formula for disaster for any leader.
A final (for now) Trump observation: The longer the debate lasted, the less his presence seemed to dominate. In part that was a function of the crowded stage, and the need to give other candidates their rightful shares of the floor. In part that was a function of too many superficial questions that prevented Trump from drawing sharp policy distinctions with his fellow contenders.
But in part it stemmed from the same kind of weakness he showed in dealing with Megyn Kelly. Just as Trump failed to use that opportunity to make a larger point that would have resonated both with his followers and beyond their ranks, he failed to seize on any chance to use this immense platform to speak directly to Republican voters, and to all the other viewers, and connect with them anew in ways that his more conventional counterparts clearly haven’t.
It’s true that Trump faced format and other obstacles in meeting this challenge. But it’s also true that the real superstars of American politics use the slightest pretext to create these openings. That’s easier to do for politicians who understand that their highest priority isn’t subjugating their rivals – or beating down reporters – but reaching the electorate. In other words, most of the biggest political winners need enough ego to treat their rivals, in effect, as nuisances, but not so much as to obscure the centrality of the audience. And at this point, it’s difficult to imagine Donald Trump realizing that, in this most crucial of ways, his campaign isn’t all about him.