Throughout this Republican presidential primary campaign, many moments should have doomed the campaign of real estate billionaire and former reality television star Donald Trump, including the rambling speech he gave on the very day he announced his candidacy.
So far, though, nothing has been able to deflate the Trump bubble. But that may have changed Tuesday night, in the fourth main Republican debate, which was held last night in Milwaukee, one hour after an undercard featuring lower-polling candidates.
The contest, hosted by Fox Business Network, was supposed to focus on the issues of business and the economy, ostensibly home turf for Trump, whose success as a real estate developer is what he himself touts as his primary qualification to sit in the Oval Office.
But the bombastic billionaire came out of the eight-person talk-a-thon looking not only like a lightweight on issues of economic policy, but also like an oversensitive bully who can’t stand being challenged.
The key moment of the evening came when Trump was asked by the moderators to talk about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that the Obama administration has just finished negotiating with 11 other Pacific nations.
In his typical fashion, Trump used most of his time blasting the deal without going into specifics. It is “a horrible deal,” he insisted, that will “lead to nothing but trouble.” It is “one of the worst trade deals” and would let China “take advantage of everyone.”
Trump went on in that vein for a while before turning to the issue of currency manipulation. Sounding indignant, he raged that the 5,000-page agreement does not require China to adjust the value of its currency, thus giving it an unfair advantage against global competition. Currency manipulation is “one of the great weapons they have,” Trump complained to Wall Street Journal Editor Gerard Baker, one of the moderators.
After a couple of minutes, Trump was suddenly interrupted by the Kentucky drawl of Sen. Rand Paul, whose poor performance in the polls left him with barely enough support to qualify for the main stage.
“Hey Gerard,” Paul said to Baker. “You know, we might want to point out that China’s not part of this deal.”
“True,” said Baker, as the hall erupted with laughter and applause, “It’s true.”
While being called out by Paul for not knowing what he was talking about regarding the TPP may have been Trump’s most embarrassing moment, it was probably not the only one likely to get replayed in the aftermath of the debate.
At one point when two-term Ohio Gov. John Kasich who also spent 18 years in Congress challenged Trump’s assertion that it would be a simple matter to round up and deport more than 11 million illegal immigrants, Trump responded angrily.
“I’ve built an unbelievable company worth billions and billions of dollars,” he fumed. “I don’t have to hear from this man. Believe me I don’t have to hear from him.”
The evening was full of moments when one candidate either interrupted another or simply started talking without being called on by the moderators. But Trump seemed to take particular offense at one point when former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina tried to force her way into the discussion. Despite the fact that he wasn’t even talking at the time, he demanded, “Why does she keep interrupting everybody?”
His outburst provoked some laughter, but that quickly turned to boos from the audience.
While Trump’s act seemed to have worn thin with both the audience and his fellow debaters, the one person on the stage who arguably had the most to lose Tuesday night, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, actually found himself cowed by Trump at a key point in the evening.
Bush, languishing in the polls all summer and into the fall, has been struggling to maintain support, particularly among the influential Republicans who flocked to him when he announced his candidacy earlier this year. Many pundits saw this debate as a possible inflection point in his campaign – he could either break out with a powerful performance, or turn the perception that his campaign had stalled into reality.
Bush tried to assert himself at one point in the debate, starting to interrupt Trump in an answer about Middle East policy.
“Hold it,” Trump barked.
Bush started in again.
“Wait a minute,” Trump commanded.
And Bush obeyed.
The former Florida governor was eventually allowed back into the discussion, and criticized Trump for treating foreign policy like a board game -- “That’s not how the real world works,” he said – but his inability to override Trump when he wanted to was symbolic of his overall performance. Bush did not have a particularly bad debate, with the exception of a few awkward answers, but he came nowhere close to the breakout performance his supporters had hoped for.
Two of the night’s winners were former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who is in a virtual tie with Trump in national opinion pols, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has been steadily gaining support.
Carson came into the debate after several days of bruising media coverage about elements of his biography that have been difficult to verify, or that seem to have been exaggerated. He has dismissed the stories as “vicious lies” in fundraising appeals. On Tuesday night, he was given the chance to respond.
He got a big laugh when he thanked the moderators for “not asking me what I said in the 10th grade.” He added, “I have no problem with being vetted. What I do have a problem with is being lied about and putting it out there as truth.”
Carson wasn’t seriously challenged on any of the issues that have been in the press, and though he gave rambling, disconnected answers on questions about dealing with overseas terrorism and financial regulation, he probably didn’t hurt himself. That, combined with Trump’s poor showing, could wind up helping him in the polls.
Rubio turned in a solid performance, with no notable mistakes. He, more than any of the other candidates, with the possible exception of Fiorina, delivers consistently polished and coherent paragraph-length answers to complex questions, and he did so again Tuesday.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz may have had the most unexpected revelation of the night, advocating for a return to the gold standard. But otherwise the Texas firebrand turned in a performance very much like his previous debates, railing against government regulation, illegal immigration, and of course, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
Fiorina likewise turned in another dependably solid performance. Her vows to eliminate Obamacare, to cut the tax code down to three pages, and to lift the burden of government regulation all earned the audience’s approval.
She also landed a zinger on Trump after the billionaire bragged that he knew Russian President Vladimir Putin well because they both had appeared on the same episode of 60 Minutes a few months ago.
“I have met him as well,” she said, while articulating her argument that the U.S. should not currently be in talks with Russia, “not in a green room before a show, but in a private meeting.”
In an evening marked by candidates interrupting one another, John Kasich probably took the prize for the most efforts to insert himself into the conversation uninvited. Unfortunately for the Ohio governor, when he managed to get himself in the spotlight, his comments often devolved into wandering monologues that didn’t seem to justify his eagerness to deliver them.
Paul, who bloodied Trump’s nose on the question of China, had a very good night for a man who almost didn’t earn a spot on the stage. In addition to his stinging blow to the frontrunner, he spoke powerfully about military adventurism and the need to limit both the country’s involvement in foreign conflicts and its spending on the military.
The biggest winner of the evening, however, may have been Fox Business Network. In addition to The Wall Street Journal’s Baker, FBN anchors Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto served as moderators. In several of the past debates, the moderators, either by their own fault or the candidates, became part of the post-debate story.
On Tuesday night, though, all three did a creditable job of keeping the discussion tied, for the most part, to the advertised topics of business and the economy. They also kept relative order on the stage – no mean feat when dealing with eight candidates with enough self-confidence to believe they ought to be president.