Thursday was the biggest night of the political year so far, for what happened on the stage at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena and for what happened offstage as well.
The stage was the scene of the first two Republican presidential debates, hosted by Fox News, which together lasted some 200 minutes between 5 and 11 p.m. EDT. What happened there did not go unnoticed. According to overnight Nielsen ratings, the two-hour prime-time debate got a rating as high as the national basketball finals — almost triple the highest rating of a Republican debate in the 2012 cycle and more than half that of the first Obama-Romney debate that fall. It was apparently the most watched primary debate in history.
That may have helped Trump, the candidate whom many presumably tuned in to watch. He has a history of getting good TV ratings and has been leading most recent national and state polls. But it’s not clear that he gained (or lost) ground in this debate. He had some unhelpful testy interchanges but did nothing to disenchant those who already liked him.
The debate may also have helped, to varying degrees, the other nine candidates on the stage, each of whom had one or more memorable moments and showed he could handle penetrating, even hostile questions with aplomb. Even as Trump held up his hand and refused to abandon the threat of running as an independent — his “leverage” — the debate may have helped the Republican Party, whose national image has suffered.
That image may have been helped even more for those who tuned in for the 5 o’clock “happy hour” debate and saw the assured, aggressive performance of Carly Fiorina, footage of which the Fox moderators aired during the 9 p.m. main event.
Viewers hoping to see attacks on, or by, Trump were mostly (though not entirely) disappointed. What they saw instead was Trump acting more like a standard politician and his more conventional rivals expanding on some of his themes.
Trump had some basis, though he exaggerated, when he said that his (unsavory) comments on immigration got other candidates talking about the issue. His candidacy has also prompted rivals to acknowledge the frustrations of many voters with political gridlock and economic sluggishness today.
Some frustration is inevitable, thanks to James Madison and the other delegates who wrote a Constitution full of checks and balances — and to an electorate tilting usually to Democrats in presidential elections and Republicans in congressional contests. But Trump’s campaign has prodded other candidates to expand on how they can overcome it.
Not all performed equally well. A man from Mars tuning in might wonder why Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, though competent, had been leading in pre-Trump polling. They didn’t match Mike Huckabee’s one-liners, Rand Paul’s feistiness, Chris Christie’s specifics, Ben Carson’s charm, Ted Cruz’s clarity, John Kasich’s ingenuousness or Marco Rubio’s capacity to ad lib seamlessly from his relationship to God to the conduct of the Veterans Administration.
And none could respond to an event offstage that may have more immediate impact than the debate. That was the announcement that Senator Charles Schumer, Senate Democrats’ leader-in-waiting, is voting to disapprove Barack Obama’s deal with Iran. This was apparently leaked by the White House to the Huffington Post during the debate — an even better time to bury news than a pre-holiday-weekend Friday afternoon.
This came just one day after Obama’s disgraceful speech where he likened Republican opponents of the deal to Iran regime supporters who chant “death to America!” A White House reporter might ask whether Schumer fits into that category at the next presidential press conference.
Administration strategists hoped that Schumer would support the deal or delay a “no” vote until it was too late to influence others. Instead he announced his position, in a thoughtful and serious statement, as members of Congress fan out to face constituents. Polls show voters are increasingly skeptical for the reason Schumer found pivotal — skepticism about the deal will make Iran’s leaders less hostile to America.
The “no” votes of Schumer and Eliot Engel, House Democrat and ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee (who also announced his stance on Thursday), mean there will be a large bipartisan majority against the deal. Maybe even the two-thirds required for disapproval.
That casts a cloud on what Obama regards as his signal foreign policy achievement, even as the Cleveland debates showed the Republican race is not a clown show. It was a tough Thursday for the president and his party.