Even the most die-hard politics junkie probably would have been satisfied Saturday night.
The Republican primary in South Carolina and Democratic voting in Nevada brought out the news media first-string one week after the stunning passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, which inspired no such personnel commitment. TV news does like premeditated and structured events, and this was a day and night long in the planning.
Wolf Blitzer and Jake Tapper on CNN, Brian Williams and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier on Fox News fronted exhaustive coverage marked by notable happenings: Donald Trump winning easily in South Carolina, Hillary Clinton averting a much-suspected Bernie Sanders upset in Nevada, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio each proclaiming themselves the anti-Trump candidate in a potential one-on-one contest with him, and Jeb Bush exiting the race with pained elegance.
“Jeb Bush did something that was very hard for him, packing it in,” said Chris Stirewalt, digital politics director for Fox News in one of the night’s true understatements. It really was stunning, given his man-to-beat status a year ago and underscored one of the many giant errors in media analysis during the campaign.
Kelly flagged the ongoing incongruity between Trump’s views on issues — of late she finds notable his support of the Obamacare insurance mandate — and what one always assumed were the sentiments of bedrock conservatives. But that reality also seemed to complicate her own suggestion that the heralded and confused GOP “establishment” would now rush to consolidate behind Marco Rubio.
Jake Tapper tried to engage one of his CNN panelists, former Republican congressman Mike Rogers, on the the seeming thought process now of that very “establishment.” After all, it does include Rogers. Channel that establishment, Tapper asked Rogers, and tell viewers what it’s now thinking since it’s thought to be nauseous at the thought of Trump or Cruz as the party standard bearer in the fall.
Rogers deflected Tapper, suggesting his premise rested somewhat on caricature, and that the establishment is far from a cohesive entity and a fight remains for many of their adherents.
In time, Tapper would note how seeming bastions of both domestic and religious-cultural establishments had just taken whacks at Trump in recent days, namely President Obama, former President George W. Bush and Pope Francis.
“Let me describe the Republican establishment,” chimed in David Axelrod, the former chief strategist for Obama. “They are business-oriented, pro-trade, pro-immigrations, fiscal conservatives. It’s not clear where they have to go in this race. The voters see two senators going after one another and this guy (Trump) who is distinct. If campaigns are about market segmentation, Trump has his space.”
“This is a thumping,” said John King, a terrific reporter relegated be being king of CNN’s “magic” video wall. With a touch of the finger, he gave a primer on county-by-county voting patterns throughout South Carolina and how Trump had fared well in spots that, well, nobody would have figured months ago.
Over at Fox, analyst Steve Hayes was cautioning that only 4 percent of Republican delegates have been allocated. But that reality was generally treated as an underwhelming technicality, given Trump momentum. “Trumps stands like a titan in the Republican race,” said Juan Williams, the pre-eminent liberal presence on Fox.
MSNBC’s pairing of Brian Williams and Maddow had its moments, though it remains awkward with Maddow the more active on-air personality.
And when there was airtime to kill, with the big news already in, she showed her “favorite nasty campaign tactic,” namely the audio and transcript of a so-called “robo call” made on behalf of Cruz in South Carolina by a super-pac. It was all about trashing Trump for a perceived pro-LGBTQ stance.
“I’m a lesbian. Can we look for more forward motion on equality for gays and lesbians?” says a woman during an actual back-and-forth with Trump that’s heard on the ad. Trump responds, “Well, you can.”
An unidentified narrator then says, “Stop. What does she mean by forward motion?” Well, the narrator says, it’s about “forcing clergy” to officiate at gay marriages, mandating transgender bathrooms in “your child’s school” and ultimately about “tearing down our America. Ted Cruz for America, now, before it’s too late.”
Dirty, yes. Effective? Well, perhaps not really, Maddow noted, given Trump’s win.
The MSNBC crew included Chris Matthews in Nevada. Matthews has appeared at times during the campaign to be rather solicitous toward Clinton. On Saturday night, he concluded that her Nevada conquest “is very important. I do believe that she has a very good chance to be our next president. I do believe Trump is flawed, that Cruz is too far to the right to win a general election.”
Williams quickly interjected a basic question to his rarely equivocal colleague Matthews: The Matthews theory of a potential Rubio nomination by the Republicans includes the notion of a “Trump fade.” Where, geographically, does that now play out, Williams wondered.
Matthews wasn’t especially specific but underscored that Rubio has a chance and that Trump remains “a minority candidate” with a low ceiling. Whoever comes up as “the other (Republican) candidate” has a chance.
In a year when the media establishment has been flummoxed just as much as Republican Party counterparts, Matthews, a master of the on-air opinion genre, concluded on an engaging night of news and speculation. “I think Rubio can win a general election. I don’t think Trump can.”