The biggest news of Thursday’s Fox Theatre Free-for-All wasn’t Donald Trump’s anatomy lesson or the unmasking of his eponymous “university,” another in a long string of business failures.
It’s what wasn’t said. By Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who used the less-populated stage of the Fox News debate to sidestep several opportunities to hammer the front-runner — the clearest signal yet that the two-term governor (no matter what he told Bill O’Reilly later) is eyeing a spot on a Trump ticket, either at the request of the would-be nominee or during a contested Republican Party convention in Cleveland.
Or by the moderators, who spared Trump the embarrassment of asking him about the Flint water crisis, Detroit’s abysmal public schools or how the next president could revive manufacturing in the city once considered the archetype of American industrial might.
Neither Kasich nor Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz nailed their respective detours into parochial Michigan issues: Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan does not control the city schools, as Kasich said; the Flint fiasco, politicized as it’s become, is more than failures of government, Senator Rubio; and Detroit’s 50-year downward spiral owes almost as much to racial strife, de-industrialization and political polarization, Senator Cruz, as it does “60 years of failed left-wing policies.”
The moderators didn’t even bother to ask Trump about these issues animating Michigan’s body politic, lest he be stumped for anything more than another blustery non-answer that has become his trademark these past 11 debates. Case in point: his response to co-host Megyn Kelly’s lawyerly dissection of the Trump University fraud class-action or efforts pressing for cogency on foreign policy.
Worse, Fox-produced slides contrasting fanciful Trump proposals on cutting the Department of Education and wringing savings out of Medicare drug purchases demonstrated just how loosely affiliated Trump is with his own policy proposals. I know: It doesn’t matter now because he’s a successful business man financing his own campaign. When will it matter?
“This has become a freak-show campaign,” Rubio told NewsTalk 760-WJR’s Paul W. Smith on Friday morning. “We have a culture that’s rewarding this behavior. That’s why he’s doing it. It’s being covered as an ongoing reality show like ‘Survivor.’ ”
Yes, it is. And it will continue to be, given who’s leading the race and how he’s doing it. Whatever you think of Trump — and it’s clear by now that many leading Republicans can’t stand him — he’s crafted a formula perfect for his time: celebrity, mixed with an uncanny knack for attracting free media, combines with artfully identifying populist issues (and simple solutions) to deliver the kind of diverse base the GOP has long craved but been unable to assemble.
More than two Cuban-Americans born of humble circumstances and endowed with raw rhetorical skills. More than a two-term Ohio governor with a solid record, the chairmanship of the House Budget Committee and the rare distinction of having helped to balance the federal budget during the Clinton years. Trump’s formula so far is trumping them all, which says as much about the country as it says about him.
Yes, the Republican base is angry with “The Establishment.” They delivered Republicans the House in 2010, the Senate in 2014, and yet Obamacare and the nuclear deal with Iran, to name two, still live. Party leaders who didn’t hear clearly the repeated messages from the base are many of the same who dismissed a Trump candidacy as a lark that would not withstand the rigors of a real campaign with real issues. Wrong, again.
A successful Trump candidacy, with all its recklessly authoritarian and politically incorrect impulses, is as much a Republican legacy as it is a Democratic president’s. And don’t forget a media-saturated culture that elevates celebrity and “good TV” over substance because, well, it drives all-important ratings and delivers the almighty dollar.
Watching yet another one of these debates — with Super Tuesday past, the Michigan primary on Tuesday and the winner-take-all states of Ohio and Florida a week hence — is to marvel at just how absurdly unserious American presidential campaigns are becoming. Can you imagine a general-election campaign between Trump and Hillary Clinton backed by the Democratic machine?
Here’s a self-promoting, media-savvy billionaire with no policy chops, a mean streak and a whole lot of platitudes vs. a former secretary of state whose use of a personal email server is under investigation by the Justice Department, the FBI and reportedly a grand jury for potential national-security violations. When’s the last time both parties were poised to nominate such flawed candidates?
Not in my lifetime, certainly.
Election have consequences, as political wags frequently remind, and those consequences are more enduring than the finale of a reality TV show. Thursday’s Detroit debate should be a reminder of that fact, but I’m not sure it was — not in this country, in this year.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.