Immediately following last night’s Republican debate on Fox News, moderator Megyn Kelly took a victory lap, of sorts, on her regular weeknight show “The Kelly File." Every guest praised her work, and certainly, the anchor seemed to as confident and poised as ever. Kelly was the only woman who spoke at the GOP debate, as one of three moderators from Fox News in an otherwise all-male arena. But she was hardly the most obscure. The entire debate’s story became about Kelly earlier this week, when GOP frontrunner Donald Trump pitched what can best be described as a tantrum and refused to be questioned by the network anchor. Fox News didn’t back down—a rare enough occurrence for the cable news network, which is very cushy with the GOP—making Kelly the network’s unofficial cause and its unexpected mascot, too.
It was hard not to root for Kelly, as a reasonable human being who is skeptical of bigotry, during the two-hour debate last night. Much like Anderson Cooper at the first Democratic primary debates, Kelly was both immaculately dressed and immaculately poised, handling Trump’s ratings-threatening absence and the eight obfuscating candidates on stage with a sharpness that outstripped her co-moderators, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace. Her finest moment was when she played clip reels before two of her questions, one for Senator Marco Rubio and one for Senator Ted Cruz. The clip montage juxtaposed their many contradictory remarks on the same topic—the type of incisive criticism that “The Daily Show” became famous for. Both fumbled with their responses; Cruz, afterwards, on “The Kelly File,” claimed that he was using Democratic rhetoric in order to debate them on the real issues. For her part, Kelly, like a good moderator, let the answers to the questions speak for themselves, calling out hypocrisy but not rhetoric. It demonstrated the rigor that she described in her cover interview for Vanity Fair this month (which is an illuminating if entirely too breathless insight into how she became a voice of conservative reason; her background is in trial law). On her infamous opening question for Donald Trump at the August GOP primary debate:
I wrote it. I researched each line item myself. It was interesting to me after the debate when people started fact-checking my question. My own reaction was "Bring it on." You think I’d go out there and ask a question like that at the first G.O.P. debate without making sure I was bulletproof on every single word?
What transpired, last night, was the most substantive of the GOP debates thus far. Rubio was keyed-up, but able to fire off several soundbytes about Hillary Clinton nominating Barack Obama to the Supreme Court (a combination of proper nouns that presumably polls very well in Iowa). Cruz was not exactly charismatic, but he managed to convey comfort with being the center-stage frontrunner. Senator Rand Paul wouldn’t even have been at the debate if Trump hadn’t boycotted; as it was, he spoke a considerable amount onstage about some of his pet topics—privacy and balancing the budget. Even Governor Jeb Bush, a profoundly unappealing man, got a chance for a few moments of dad-like charm, stumbling into a joke or two that made him seem, for a few fleeting moments, like a normal human.
It all made a nice smokescreen for the debate’s chilling core; without Trump, this was a debate that made the GOP seem likable, sane, and electable. Kelly herself was a voice of reason, but without a doubt, one that spoke with the core principles of the party establishment. Her clip reels and pointed questions served to catch Cruz and Rubio in the act of displaying—the horror—amnesty for undocumented immigrants, as if that is a bad thing at all. Without Trump present to steal the scene with his undeniable charisma and establishment-upending tactics, the Fox News machine had plenty of space to frame the debate exactly the way they wanted to. Trump was a talked-about figure in the same way that Hillary Clinton was—“he who must not be named,” joked one of the commentators onscreen. But by not being present, he was an eliminated distraction. Even though he was on the other networks—MSNBC and CNN were carrying Trump’s “Donald Trump For Vets” event during the first hour or so of the debate—for once, Fox News had the opportunity to shape the GOP dialogue without the insidious influence of Trump’s popularity or populism.
It’s hard to deny that Kelly did a good job with her questioning; indeed, it would have been kind of miraculous to watch her direct those questions at Trump, with a tailored clip reel to match. But Trump’s popularity has made the Republican establishment look sane and rational, when that’s not the case at all. Every candidate discussed dismantling Obamacare; every candidate endorsed eliminating all access to reproductive rights. Every candidate saber-rattled against Muslims in some way or another, whether that was by decrying political correctness (Ben Carson) or by pivoting to border security (Rand Paul). Kelly herself has been a conservative ideologue on the weirdest of issues—like insisting Santa Claus, a made-up giver of Christmas gifts, always be represented as white. Our standards for reasonable discussion on Fox News are so low that there’s a temptation to give the Trump-free, Kelly-driven debate a pass. But beyond the fireworks of the Trump campaign is a world where the GOP actually appeals to the general electorate despite wildly conservative and deeply upsetting policies.
Last night, Kelly walked directly from moderating the debate to a special Iowa caucuses edition of “The Kelly File,” where Charles Krauthammer, the longtime conservative pundit, was her first guest. He praised her for her sharp questioning. Afterwards, Republican pollster Frank Luntz did a segment with his focus group, but before he got started, he also effusively lauded Kelly for her performance—adding that it seemed to have created real change for the focus group he was working with. Luntz informally asked the focus group to raise their hands and then offer up one-word statements on Rubio, and apparently, the group started out lukewarm and ended up likely to vote for him. This, even though Kelly hammered him on the immigration question; that rhetorical trap that read like a journalistic victory. The words the group used to describe him were “game-changer,” “confident,” “assertive,” “presidential.”
Nothing about the moment felt quite right. Why was Luntz congratulating Kelly on a job well done, when her sharp question put Rubio on the spot? How did the fast-talking, slightly sweaty, and weirdly loud reactionary onstage appeal to this group of seemingly sane human beings? How could they all be unimpressed with Trump, as they claimed to be, after the candidate currently has 32.9 percent support in Iowa? It might have something to do with the fact that the GOP establishment would be over the moon if the candidate ended up being Rubio, not Cruz or Trump. It might have something to do with the fact that because Fox News hosted the debate, it has a vested interest in proving that Trump’s absence from the debate hurt him. It might have something to do with the fact that Luntz has worked closely with Rubio in the past—worked for him, in fact. As much as I admired Kelly’s poise last night, her demeanor seems just as much part of Fox News’ strategy as Luntz’s captive focus group. Maybe she really is a great journalist, and maybe that focus group really did come away believing that Rubio was a sensation. But more likely, what really happened last night was the conservative establishment making itself heard. It remains to be seen whether America will listen.
Check out our GOP debate recap here:
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