No sooner had CNN’s refreshingly untidy Republican debate ended late Thursday than the cable network gave more airtime to, yes, Donald Trump.
“I was very happy, I thought it was great,” he told on-stage inquisitor Chris Cuomo as attendees were still filing out of a Houston auditorium. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz tried to turn him into a two-legged piñata but he rarely flinched under the assaults, whatever the facts. “I really enjoyed it.”
If you doubted whether CNN — and its cable and broadcast rivals — think Trump is ratings gold, it was dispelled as soon as last night’s debate ended. Post-debate host Anderson Cooper immediately threw it back to the stage for colleague Chris Cuomo and Trump — exactly as if Trump were the star player, and Cuomo the diligent sidelines reporter, in an NFL game that just ended.
But, rather than an athlete’s frequent banalities, Trump turned to trademark invective without skipping a beat. He both bashed a combative Rubio as “a meltdown guy” who “was pouring sweat” and derided 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney for spreading doubts about Trump’s candidacy.
That done, CNN turned to various analysts for now pro-forma performance dissections. But guess whom it beckoned back less than a half hour later to have another one-on-one, this time on a riser with Cooper, John King and pundit Nia-Malika Henderson?
Ah, yes, Trump. The network had apparently been suffering separation anxiety.
Over at Fox News, Megyn Kelly initially introduced seven analysts — amazingly, all white males, a distinct reflection of its core audience — for her post-debate show.
Oops, that’s wrong. Throw in Frank Luntz, who quickly offered one of his empirically dubious instant focus groups, and it was eight white males. (Shortly later, knock on wood, former President George W. Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino surfaced in what passed for pundit diversity).
First up for Kelly was Charles Krauthammer. Rubio “emptied the entire airplane with its load of ammunition,” he said, noting what was predictably TV’s favorite exchange last: a rapid-fire, only vaguely intelligible volley of various accusations between Rubio and Trump, including his use of allegedly undocumented Polish workers long ago.
The pre-debate media notion that Rubio and Cruz would go after one another in their pursuit of solidifying a position as the No. 2 against Trump proved errant, as Krauthammer noted.
That was part and parcel of an initial consensus take that Rubio was perhaps the night’s winner, proving he was “the guy who could take on Donald Trump,” according to one Fox analyst. CNN’s Gloria Borger was among those who decreed Rubio the star of the event.
But, interestingly, Kelly herself was unmoved, finding that Trump had “blown past these guys” and was acting as if the GOP race was over and he were already the GOP general election candidate.
A somewhat similar refrain was voiced on MSNBC with Chris Matthews, who was in Chicago after hosting a university session with Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. The rarely equivocal Matthews spoke of Trump’s “tangible foundation” and achievements as a force that Cruz and Rubio flail in trying to deal with and just can’t match. In the process, he alluded to the likes of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
“At least society got something from their wealth,” Matthews said in his surprise, if debatable linking of Trump and two entrepreneurial icons, Ford and Edison.
But, as The Washington Post’s Dan Balz would write quickly after the debate with his characteristic sobriety, “The question is whether any of it will change the minds of Republican voters ahead of two critical weeks in March in the Republican race.”
“Though he found himself attacked from the two candidates on either side of him on the stage, Trump remained typically aggressive,” Balz wrote. “‘Swing for the fences,’ he taunted his rivals part way through the debate.”
Whether or not an old pro print reporter was right, the TV dynamic is surely unchanged. The networks will ride a phenomenon of American politics all the way through the Republican primary, perhaps even the general election.