Donald Trump is complaining that he was treated unfairly by the three Fox News moderators in last night’s debate, and while nobody should take any of Donald Trump’s whining at face value, it seems pretty clear that the moderators were playing favorites to some degree. While the moderators, especially Megyn Kelly, are getting praised for their tough questions of all the candidates, Scott Lemieux notes that they all treated Marco Rubio (in particular) like a delicate flower that needed to be nurtured rather than seriously challenged:
Rubio wasn’t so much thrown softballs as he was given softballs set up on a tee with 10 strikes and the defensive team told to leave the field. (When Kelly asked the last question, I expected her to ask Rubio his position on motherhood and apple pie too.)
The questioning, in other words, was much less fair than it might have seemed on the surface. Donald Trump, who isn’t going to win the nomination but has a toxic effect on the party as long as he’s in the race, was treated to a brutal inquisition. Rubio, who is arguably the most appealing general election candidate in the field but whose campaign is floundering, was thrown one life preserver after another. John Kasich and Jeb Bush were also treated more gently than the other candidates.
This is all a continuation of the extraordinary role Fox is playing in this primary at the moment. Unilaterally deciding to winnow the field to the top 10 candidates in the polls effectively put Roger Ailes and his network in the position of deciding winners and losers in the earliest stages of a primary that still has (*checks Mayan long-cycle calendar*) approximately 845 years to go before a candidate will be picked, and the already-questionable nature of that decision gets even more questionable when you see the extent to which Fox manipulated the debate cut-off into more ad revenue for itself.
Now the network appears to have targeted undesirable (i.e., unelectable) candidates for tougher debate questioning than their more electable opponents. Trump is making everybody look bad (plus he won’t promise not to run third-party), so the Fox hosts’ orders are to take him down. Rubio is maybe the party’s strongest candidate against Clinton, so Fox steers questions to him that give him the best chance to shine. Fox is essentially working with the RNC to put its finger on the scales in favor of candidates that stand the best chance of winning next November. Even for Fox News, this is a new level of impropriety.
The one supposed Roger Ailes favorite who nevertheless got tough questions was Scott Walker, who was made to own an abortion position that is so extreme that it would likely lose him votes in a general election, and he was challenged on his economic record as governor of Wisconsin. But Walker is also still relatively unknown to most voters and has some corruption skeletons in his closet stemming from his time as Milwaukee County Executive, so maybe he’s seen as too vulnerable in a general election to get the easy questions.
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