The first question to Chris Christie was about the nine credit downgrades that New Jersey had suffered since he became its governor.
Ben Carson was reminded of his domestic-policy blunders, of his foreign-policy blunders, of a whole raft of loopy statements that raise serious questions about how well he understands the country and globe. Could he reassure voters?
And Donald Trump had to listen obediently, even meekly, as Megyn Kelly — the one woman on Fox News’ panel of three debate moderators — recited a squirm-inducing litany of his misogynistic remarks through time.
“You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,” Kelly said, and if she was trying to hide her revulsion, she wasn’t doing an especially deft job. She recalled Trump once told a contestant on “The Celebrity Apprentice” that “it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees.” And she wondered how he’d ever stand up to inevitable charges from Hillary Clinton that he was a carrot-haired corporal in “the war on women.”
This wasn’t a debate, at least not like most of those I’ve seen. This was an inquisition.
On Thursday night in Cleveland, the Fox News moderators did what only Fox News moderators could have done, because the representatives of any other network would have been accused of pro-Democratic partisanship.
They took each of the 10 Republicans onstage to task. They held each of them to account. They made each address the most prominent blemishes on his record, the most profound apprehensions that voters feel about him, the greatest vulnerability that he has.
It was riveting. It was admirable. It compels me to write a cluster of words I never imagined writing: Hooray for Fox News.
Did Fox take this combative approach because it was theatrical? Because it promised tension, promoted unease, and was a sure route to reddened faces and raised voices?
Of course. Nothing scares a network more than the prospect of a political snooze-fest, and candidates left to their own devices are candidates who drone on and on.
But Fox accomplished something important. It prevented the Republican contenders from relying on sound bites and hewing to scripts that say less about their talents and more about the labors of their well-paid handlers.
And the questions that the moderators asked weren’t just discomfiting, humiliating ones. They were the right ones, starting with a brilliant opener: Was there any candidate who was unwilling to pledge support to the eventual Republican nominee and swear off a third-party run?
Trump alone wouldn’t make those promises, even though the moderator who asked that question, Bret Baier, pointed out that such a third-party run would likely hand the presidency to the Democratic nominee.
And thus, in the first minute of the debate, Trump was undressed and unmasked, and he stood there as the unprincipled, naked egomaniac that he is. He never quite recovered. His admission of political infidelity was the prism through which all of his subsequent bluster had to be viewed.
By putting the candidates on the defensive and on edge, Fox created the mood for an exchange as raw and revealing as one between Christie and Rand Paul over national security, federal eavesdropping and the collection of personal data.
That back-and-forth was debate platinum, because it was simultaneously fiery and substantive, impassioned and important, a perfect distillation of the two sides of an essential, necessary argument.
Paul said that he didn’t want less federal surveillance of terrorists, just of innocent Americans. Christie said that was a “ridiculous answer,” because it’s impossible to know who’s who at the start. Paul would get that, Christie said, if he wasn’t “sitting in a subcommittee, just blowing hot air.”
“You fundamentally misunderstand the Bill of Rights,” Paul shot back, later adding: “I don’t trust President Obama with our records. I know you gave him a big hug.” It was a reference to the way Christie welcomed the president to New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy.
Christie: “The hugs that I remember are the hugs that I gave to the families who lost their people on September 11th.”
They both scored points. They both made sense. And they both came out ahead — because they articulated their positions with clarity and passion.
All in all, the large number of candidates made it difficult for anyone to stand out much, so it’s impossible to come up with any sweeping, definitive list of winners and losers.
I do think that Trump lost: He said nothing, not one syllable, that infused his candidacy with any of the gravitas that it sorely needs, and there was something pouty and petulant about his whole performance. Some of his rivals managed, even under the Fox fire, to look grateful to be there and to enjoy themselves, at least a bit. Marco Rubio did.
I also think that Ted Cruz lost, inasmuch as I forgot he was there for most of the debate. I also lost track of Carson, up until a surprisingly charming closing statement, and of Huckabee, until his hilarious conflation of Trump and Clinton at the very end.
Jeb Bush avoided any gaffes and discovered a bit of the spark that he often lacks. John Kasich charted a humane midcourse for Republicans trying to reconcile personal misgivings over same-sex marriage with how the Supreme Court has ruled. Will it do him any favors with Republican primary voters? Maybe not. But he sounded like a leader, and he sounded like a decent man.
No one made as vivid an impression as Carly Fiorina did during a shorter meeting earlier in the evening of the seven runners-up, for what one of them, Lindsey Graham, labeled the “happy hour” debate. (If that’s a happy hour, I don’t think that I could survive a sad one.)
Fiorina weds Trump’s anger to an uncommon precision and propulsion: She’s a human torpedo. She may not have any business running for president, but she’s zooming for all she’s worth.
The moderators for that happy hour didn’t needle the candidates. The moderators for the main event did. And because their questions were so well researched and so barbed, the television audience sometimes learned more about the candidates from what they were asked than from how they answered.
“When did you actually become a Republican?” Kelly said to Trump after another savage recitation, this one of his many past Democratic positions. She was his appointed slayer. She visibly relished the role.
Trump was also pressed to defend his many corporate bankruptcies. Bush was pressed to explain his inability months ago to say whether, knowing all that we know now, he would have invaded Iraq. Cruz was pressed about his famously obnoxious demeanor on Capitol Hill.
Scott Walker was pressed on job creation in Wisconsin, which isn’t all that he claims it to be.
“Given your record in Wisconsin, why should voters believe you?” said Chris Wallace, the third Fox News moderator.
We shouldn’t. Candidates should have to convince us. They should square their slogans with their records, and that’s what Fox made them do. On this night, the network that pampers Republicans provoked them instead. It was great television, and even better politics.