The first Republican debate of 2016 was a wild and woolly affair, with the Magniloquent Seven cowboys — Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Ben Carson, and John Kasich — doing a lot of rootin’ tootin’ shootin’: at Hillary Clinton, at President Obama, at each other. In the immortal words of Trump this night: “Guns don’t pull the trigger; people pull the trigger.”
The Fox Business Network debate on Thursday night was highlighted by showdowns between Trump and Cruz, although both agreed on a common enemy: The New York Times. Cruz called a Times frontpage story about his loan from Goldman Sachs not disclosed in campaign finance reports a “hit-piece.” (“I made a paperwork error” was Cruz’s quick dismissal.) Trump, in answering a question that quoted the Times, interrupted with a swift, “It’s the New York Times, they’re always wrong.” Add Cruz’s attack on “New York values,” and I think the Statue of Liberty was weeping a little on Thursday night.
Moderators Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto had their hands full. Trump and Rubio were prone to blanket pronouncements. Rubio said, “Hillary Clinton is disqualified from being the president of the United States” and “I am confident that this president, if he could, he would confiscate every gun in America.” And Trump said so very Trumpily, “We can’t be the stupid country any more.”
Trump, Cruz, and Rubio were asked, and inserted themselves into, more of the moderators’ questions than anyone else on the South Carolina stage. There was a lengthy segment on the question of whether Cruz is a “natural born” citizen that was certainly not resolved. Indeed, Trump was booed by the audience for pursuing this line of inquiry. Then again, the longer it went on, you wondered whether the question mattered much to any American voter — if he or she likes what Cruz is saying these days, Cruz’s birthplace is likely of scant import to any supporter.
Fading into the woodwork with each succeeding debate are Ben Carson, whose applause line on Thursday occurred when he said that if his mother was the Treasury Secretary we wouldn’t have a deficit; John “I’ve balanced a budget” Kasich; Chris Christie, who persists in addressing the camera instead of his opponents (“If you want to keep your home and families safe, you cannot give Hillary Clinton a third term of Obama’s policies”); and poor Jeb Bush, who looked, if possible, even more miserable than usual at having to run for president. Early on, he showed a bit of energy in attacking Clinton, getting laughs and claps from the line, “She’s under FBI investigation… she will be traveling between “the court house and the White House.” But by the end, Bush looked as though he wanted nothing more than a cup of cocoa and a warm blanket.
Toward the conclusion, Cavuto was interrupted by a few audience members shouting a chant that sounded like “We want Rand!” — a reference to Rand Paul, who declined to take part in the evening’s earlier, under-card bout. As the night too-slowly wound down, there were more random yells and boos from the crowd, mostly directed at anyone who attacked Rubio — if I was to use this broadcast as a polling tool, I’d say Rubio is winning with these Americans right now. Frankly, I’m surprised more people in the audience didn’t start yelling things randomly, given all the chaotic “hot rhetoric” (Kasich’s phrase) that characterized much of these two-plus hours.
In the moments leading up to the debate Bill O’Reilly over on Fox News compared Donald Trump to the bear in The Revenant. (You won’t catch me speculating who Leonardo DiCaprio is in that metaphor.) As the night progressed, however, the slugfests — haymakers thrown, blows absorbed — started looking like outtakes from the fight scenes in Creed.