Thursday night was the Debate Without End for yours truly. Not just the GOP Kids' Table Debate and the Trump Resort Main Event but, in between, I watched the Canadian party leaders' debate hosted by my old chums at Maclean's. And I can't quite believe I'm saying this, because Bill Hemmer has always treated me very well, whereas Paul Wells likes nothing better than to reverse his Lamborghini over me in the Maclean's parking lot and leave tire tracks all over my suit, but I thought Paul's show at least had the back-and-forth cut-and-thrust of a real debate, with Harper, Mulcair, Trudeau and May butting heads directly and swatting down each other's responses and going at each other with real vigor.
By contrast, the 5pm kiddie-table debate for the second-tier GOP candidates had the usual tortured straitjacket format - one minute response, 30-second rebuttal, 20-second pre-rebuttal of 15-second interruption of seven-second aside, etc - whereas the Canucks just had at it. And in practice the GOP runner-up debate just settled into weirdly convoluted and condescending questions followed by candidates defaulting to tenuously connected stump-speech talking-points ("I was proud to serve as the Deputy Assistant Under-Commissioner of the state licensing board..." "My grandfather was a milkman...").
Anyway here's what I had to say to Hugh Hewitt just as the first US debate wrapped up:
HUGH HEWITT: That may have been the most incoherent hour of questions I've ever seen. It continues to go on as we speak. Hello, Mark.
MARK STEYN: Hi, Hugh... Don't get me wrong. Bill Hemmer is like the nicest guy there is.
HH: He is.
MS: He's always been very nice and very sweet to me. But ...the extraordinary condescension of those questions - you know, that first round of questions: 'George Pataki, nobody's heard a peep from you since 1998, why don't you just crawl away and die?' The whole assumption of those first round of questions, I thought, was pitiful. And it actually nailed, I think, the most obvious lie that people were saying about this so-called kids' table debate ...that without the presence of Donald Trump, these other fellows would be able to have a much more substantive and rewarding and mature and adult debate. I thought the questions were mostly terrible, and the candidates didn't engage with each other. And whatever happens tonight, you know, if Donald Trump wants to stomp up to the moderators and call them out as losers, actually, given the condescension of those questions from Bill and Martha... I would have quite liked to see Carly Fiorina or Lindsey Graham do a little bit of that earlier...
People wonder why Donald Trump is in the lead. Donald Trump is in the lead, because like Newt Gingrich last time around, he doesn't accept the assumptions of the questions... Carly Fiorina is an accomplished person, Rick Santorum is an accomplished person. But I would have loved it if one of them had said 'What the hell is with these questions..?' The most important thing that the Republicans need to do in order to win is to challenge Democrat liberal assumptions as the default lever in which political discourse in this country is conducted. So if you're not flinging back 'war on women' in their face, if you're not flinging back Roe v Wade in their face, when we're not talking about women's rights here, we're talking about the industrial-scale selling of baby parts, which only America does. You can't do it in France, you can't do it in Germany, you can't do it in Sweden, you can't do it in Norway, because they have basically first trimester abortion. So what are they? Are they a part of the war on women, too, because they don't like selling baby parts? At some point, one of these guys has to be man enough to fling the assumptions of these questions back in these guys' faces, because it was dispiriting and demoralizing to watch.
We were speaking three hours before the main debate, which was certainly livelier than the junior varsity. After discussing President Obama's suggestion that the GOP and Iran's Death-to-America mullahs are in league with each other, Hugh advanced a theory as to the present state of the Republican race:
HH: I got an email from my friend, Tim, today. Hugh, I now believe when it comes to, down to with Trump is non-establishment Republicans are desperate for an alpha male, and Trump is clearly the only alpha male in the campaign. They are tired of having sand kicked in their faces by Obama, ISIS, Mexico, Russia, China, etc. And Trump won't let them kick sand in our faces. At least that's the belief. That's why I think he has staying power, and it doesn't really matter what he says in this or any other debate, although I think he'll do surprisingly well tonight. As long as he projects an alpha male appearance, he'll continue to lead in the primary. What do you think about that, a minute, Mark.
MS: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right, and that's why all this thing about oh, why hasn't he laid out his policies about whether the rate of corporate tax should be 13.8 or 27.2%, he's saying the alpha-male business is the policy - that once you buy him as that, you know he's not going to be curled up in the fetal position like one of these Planned Parenthood baby-parts special-offers. He's not going to be curled up in the fetal position letting Barack Obama compare him to the ayatollahs and the Death to America guys... That is his policy platform. That's what he's running on, and that's why it's working. And having sand kicked in your face by Bill Hemmer and Martha McCallum is not working for these seven guys.
Trump kicked sand back a couple of hours later. Questioned by Chris Wallace about his remarks on Mexican rapists, he sneered that we wouldn't even be talking about immigration if it hadn't been for his throwaway lines a few weeks back. Questioned by Megyn Kelly about various insulting and misogynist Tweets he'd Tweeted, Trump responded that that was only about Rosie O'Donnell. Megyn didn't seem to think that was funny nor that it would play well with women watching at home, but who knows? Trump's basic point is that it's ridiculous to be pansying around with political correctness and concerns about "tone" when the American Dream is dead and our enemies are chopping heads off.
Frank Luntz's focus group claimed to have been big Trump supporters going into the debate and to have been done with him by the time it ended. He certainly wobbled a bit in the second hour and missed a few opportunities: the correct response to the assertion by Chris Wallace that he'd stiffed his investors in Atlantic City is that, if he's willing to screw over his own investors, he's certainly willing to screw over the Chinese. But I wonder if the broader audience will disown him as thoroughly as the Luntz focus group did - especially if it's a choice between the guy who tells the moderators they're losers, or (as at 5pm) the guys who sit there meekly being told they're losers by the moderators.
You can find the full Hugh Hewitt interview here. I'll have more commentary on the GOP race with Sean Hannity tonight, Friday, on Fox News coast to coast at 10pm.