Critic's Notebook: Trying to Stop the Trump Train at GOP Debate

Trump, Rubio, Cruz Fox News Debate - Getty - H 2016

Once again, the Republican presidental candidates managed to top themselves — or lower themselves, depending on how you look at it — in their latest skirmish.

Thursday night's GOP presidential debate was the one everybody had been waiting for, the one in which bitter rivals who had viciously fought before met again to determine once and for all who was the toughest.

I'm referring, of course, to Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly.

Yes, seven months after their first encounter, when she dared to ask him a tough question and he later implied that she was testy because she was bleeding from — well, you know — the Donald and the Fox News anchor squared off for their second go-around. Doesn't time fly?

As if in consideration for those viewers not willing to stay up too late, Trump courteously provided the evening's nadir, and best sound bite, early on. It was during a rant about Rubio's schoolyard taunts in the previous week ridiculing, among other things, the size of his hands.

"Look at these hands!" Trump shouted, waving them high in the air. "Are these small hands?"

And then, to emphasize the unspoken message, he added, "I guarantee you, there's no problem."

Yes, folks, the 2016 presidential election is now officially a dick-waving contest. And the rumbling you hear is the sound of the Founding Fathers rolling over in their graves. Although come to think of it, maybe this is the way to settle the matter. At the next debate, the candidates should simply stand front and center and whip them out. It could only elevate the level of discourse.

Naturally, Trump was asked about Mitt Romney's morning speech that brutally condemned him.

"He's a loser," Trump relied. "He wants to be relevant." Then, in response to a question about his disavowing the endorsement of white supremacist David Duke, he uttered a sentence that it's safe to say was new to presidential politics.

"Look at my Twitter account," he urged.

Speaking of endorsements, how bad has it gotten when the frontrunner actually has to utter the words, "I totally disavow the Ku Klux Klan?" What's next, a strong condemnation of NAMBLA?

For many Americans, the event was no doubt highly educational. Not about things like climate change — although Trump did say he would eliminate the EPA — or the deficit, about which virtually nothing was said, or income inequality, ditto. Instead, we were treated to a lengthy exchange concerning the pending class-action suit involving Trump University, about which Trump advised, "Let's see what happens at the end of three years," somehow managing not to add that it would be toward the end of his first term. He also delivered a lesson about the awful difficulty of finding hotel employees during "the season" in Palm Beach. You could feel Americans all over the country nodding their heads in sympathy.

The evening felt a little wan without the presence of Ben Carson, the always-reliable comic relief, who skipped the debate, after announcing that he was suspending his campaign, or, as some might call it, the most elaborate book tour ever.

Rubio dialed it back a bit from the last debate, apparently chastened by the negative responses to his childish attacks (he's just not as good at it as Donald). But both he and Cruz kept the pressure on the frontrunner, with the latter actually managing to sound dignified in his assaults, such as when he decorously pointed out "Donald has a tenuous relationship with the truth." Of course, his restraint had limits.

During one heated exchange, he treated Trump like an unruly 5-year-old, admonishing, "Count to 10, Donald." In another, he exhorted, "Breathe, breathe, you can do it!" sounding like a husband coaching his wife during childbirth. Rubio then got off a fine quip, saying to the moderators, "When they're done with the yoga …" When Cruz responded that there would be no yoga on the stage that night, Rubio pointed at Trump and said, "He's very flexible, you never know."

Trump, true to form, treated his opponents with his characteristic civility, several times referring to them as "Little Marco" and "Lyin' Ted," respectively.

John Kasich was in uncharacteristic macho mode, proclaiming that he would do better in the upcoming primaries than he has so far.

"We're heading up north, to my turf!" he boasted. The rousing effect, unfortunately, was undercut later in the evening when he referred to himself as "the little engine that can."

Asked about his position that businesses should serve everyone even if it's against their religious beliefs, Kasich said that he was more interested in the "do's" of his faith. He cited humility and loving his enemy, two things he's had a lot of practice with during the long campaign. He also begged Americans to return to the values of "respect, common sense and tolerance." But really, when was the last time you saw that on a bumper sticker?

As usual, there were more than a few responses that induced jaw-dropping. (Or they would have, in any other election). Asked about the dire water situation in Flint, Michigan, Rubio seemed to imply that the main problem was that the Democrats were politicizing the issue. Responding to an assertion that the military wouldn't necessarily follow his unlawful orders, Trump replied, "They will do what I tell them," which explains a lot about that tweet of a Mussolini quote. And Cruz, asked how the government would collect taxes if his plan to abolish the IRS was put into effect, admitted that there would still be "an office to receive the postcards" of the abbreviated tax returns.  

Perhaps realizing that his previous skirmishes with Kelly hadn't gone all that well, Trump was fairly meek in their interactions, although when he greeted her by saying, "Nice to be with you, Megyn, you're looking well," the sarcasm was evident. Typically, she, along with the other moderators, went after Trump hard. (Why is Fox suddenly turning out to be the best at going after Republicans?). She prodded and prodded him about his meeting with The New York Times editorial board in which he supposedly disavowed some of his major positions, such as immigration. Rubio and Cruz eagerly joined in on the chorus, daring Trump to release the audiotape of the meeting. Trump responded that he has "too much respect for the process" to betray the newspaper's trust.

(Really, Donald, that's what you're going with? This from the man who's insulted the media at every turn? No offense to the Times, but can we get the Spotlight team on the case?)

Moderator Chris Wallace showcased graphics filled with statistics refuting several of Trump's assertions, such as that he could pay for his tax cuts by eliminating the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency. As Trump sputtered through one response, Wallace gleefully ordered, "Let's put up full screen No. 2!" as if he was Perry Mason cross-examining a witness.  

For the evening's final question, the candidates were asked if they would support Trump if he became the party's nominee. Each of them said yes, although it was easy to see that a little part of them was dying inside.

Trump got a variation of the question, asked if he would support the nominee even if it wasn't him.

"Even if it's not me?" the Donald replied in mock astonishment. He was trying to be funny, but there are plenty of people in the country, including a good portion of the Republican party, who have long stopped finding it amusing.