Fox host Bret Baier opened the first debate among the ten men who might be the Republican nominee for president in 2016 with the only question that mattered politically.
“Is there anyone on stage—and can I see hands—who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person?”
“Again,” Baier continued, “we’re looking for you to raise your hand now —raise your hand now if you won’t make that pledge tonight.”
There, in the middle of the stage, stood the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. And he was raising his hand.
“Mr. Trump to be clear, you’re standing on a Republican primary debate stage,” said Baier, apparently surprised that his gotcha question had in fact gotten a candidate.
“I fully understand,” replied the billionaire who has entirely disrupted the Republican race.
Still incredulous, Baier noted that the debate was being held in the Quicken Loan Arena “where the RNC will give the nominee the nod.”
“I fully understand,” replied the billionaire once more.
Baier was not about to casually accept that someone on the stage of a Republican debate was more interested in being president than in being a loyal Republican. Noting that “experts say an independent run would almost certainly hand the race over to Democrats and likely another Clinton,” he was reduced to begging: “You can’t say tonight that you can make that pledge?”
Then Donald Trump said something more politically bold than anything else that was said by any of the 17 candidates who participated in the hours of first-tier and second-tier debating that passed for politics on Thursday night. Indeed, though he may not have known it, Trump made the most politically bold statement of what passes for his political career.
“I cannot say,” said Trump. “I have to respect the person that, if it’s not me, the person that wins.”
Translation: I am not sure I respect some of these guys.
Trump continued: “If I’m the nominee, I will pledge I will not run as an independent.”
Translation: If I am not the nominee, I might run as an independent.
Trump continued: “I’m, you know, talking about a lot of leverage.”
Translation: I’m way ahead in the polls right now and I think that’s because I am a lot more interesting than you guys.
Trump continued: “We want to win, and we will win. But I want to win as the Republican. I want to run as the Republican nominee.”
Translation: I really, really want to win. The “Republican nominee” part is kind of secondary.
That was pretty clear, except to Bret Baier.
“So tonight, you can’t say if another one of these…” began the Fox host.
Rand Paul was perfectly willing to accept Trump at his word.
“This is what’s wrong!” said the senator from Kentucky. “I mean, this is what’s wrong. He buys and sells politicians of all stripes, he’s already…”
Paul grabbed the baton.
“Hey, look, look! He’s already hedging his bet on the Clintons,” says the senator. “OK? So if he doesn’t run as a Republican, maybe he supports Clinton, or maybe he runs as an independent…”
Poor Paul. Everyone could see it coming, except him.
“He’s already hedging his bets because he’s used to buying politicians,” said Paul.
And, of course, Trump said: “Well, I’ve given him plenty of money.”
That was that for Rand Paul, not just in this exchange but pretty much for the rest of the debate – even if he did offer up a credible defense of the Fourth Amendment in an exchange with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
But Baier was still incredulous.
“You’re not gonna make the pledge tonight?
No, said Trump, “I will not make the pledge at this time.”
“O.K.,” said Baier. “Alright.”
Then Megyn Kelly, to her credit, reminded everyone of why, no matter what party line he chooses, Donald Trump is not a nice man.
“Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter,” she began. “However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women. You’ve called women you don’t like “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals…”
“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” interrupted Trump.
The partisan crowd laughed. They cheered Trump’s sexism. And not a single one of the other nine contenders — not even Ohio Governor John Kasich, who did an otherwise credible job of positioning himself as the adult in the room — dared to call Trump out. (Memo to the RNC: Find a poll that puts Carly Fiorina, the winner of the second-tier “kids table” debate, on stage with these guys.)
It fell to Kelly to counter Trump, with a stern reminder that, “For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O’Donnell.”
Donald Trump will not be the Republican nominee for president.
Donald Trump might mount an independent campaign. If he does, he will harm the Republican nominee’s prospects. But that will not get him any closer to the White House than Ross Perot was after his 1992 and 1996 vanity candidacies.
All of this was true before Thursday night’s debate.
All of this was even more true after Thursday night’s debate.
Trump did himself some damage with Republican stalwarts. His political stock may finally begin to fall.
But the other Republican contenders diminished themselves, as well. They were still too scared of the bully to challenge even his foulest statements
As for Rosie O’Donnell, her political stock is rising.