GOP Debate: Zingers And Counterattacks

This blog was originally published on Forbes as GOP Debate: Zingers And Counterattacks on Wednesday, September 16, 2015.

Among the many factors generating high anticipation for tonight’s Republican presidential debate—Will Donald Trump tangle with Carly Fiorina, will Jeb Bush ramp up his energy, will Ben Carson continue his ascent in the polls?—high on the list is whether there will be another Megyn Kelly moment, when a zinger question erupts in the debate and then dominates next day’s headlines. One of tonight’s moderators, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, whose role—as it was for Ms. Kelly—is to challenge the candidates, has already unleashed one zinger at Donald Trump in a radio interview earlier this month:

But on the front of Islamist terrorism, I’m looking for the next commander-in-chief, to know who Hassan Nasrallah is, and Zawahiri, and al-Julani, and al-Baghdadi. Do you know the players without a scorecard, yet, Donald Trump?

Mr. Trump began his answer by admitting that he did not know, but then became defensive and ended his response with typical bravado:

But as far as the individual players, of course I don’t know them. I’ve never met them. I haven’t been, you know, in a position to meet them. If, if they’re still there, which is unlikely in many cases, but if they’re still there, I will know them better than I know you.

The day after the interview, Mr. Trump compounded his bravado with a direct attack on Mr. Hewitt, calling him “a third-rate radio announcer.”

Mr. Hewitt was only the latest target of such personal attacks. Mr. Trump has made snarky remarks about Ms. Fiorina’s face, Megyn Kelly’s menses, Jeb Bush’s wife, Rick Perry’s glasses, and John McCain’s patriotism; of Barack Obama, Mr. Trump said, “Our president doesn’t have a clue.”

Of course, negative campaigning has been an integral part of politics going back to 1800 when President John Adams and Vice-President Thomas Jefferson competed for the White House. A 2012 Forbes article described the negativity in that campaign, some of them personal attacks but, for most of the time since, attacks have targeted opponents’ track records and/or their platforms rather than their personas.

And most of the time, candidates’ responses to such attacks from their opponents and to zinger questions from the media and debate moderators have followed a predictable pattern of diplomatic deflection followed by rebuttal and spin. On the campaign trail, politicians tend to observe the same measured propriety as they do in their legislatures.

Against all prior practice, however, Mr. Trump has made personal attacks the meta theme of his platform—even to the exclusion of virtually any other theme or policy—and it has worked. And against all odds, he continues to maintain—no, to increase—his lead in the public opinion polls. Political analysts have attributed this phenomenon to the fact that Mr. Trump’s negativity is a reflection of the electorate’s anger at the inefficiency and gridlock in Washington.

Jeb Bush, who has fallen from his front runner position to a double digit deficit and has said “Trump is trying to insult his way into the presidency,” is very likely to counterattack; he promised, “I’m sure as hell—when he attacks me personally or disparages my family—you’re damn right I’m going to fight back.” Carly Fiorina promised too, saying that she “will challenge…the entertainer who’s running for office.” Hugh Hewitt, in response to the “third-rate” charge, is likely to launch a zinger or two; and so is co-moderator Dana Bash who has done the same at Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.

Unless he make a complete U-turn, Donald Trump will counterattack any attacks and will launch his own. Will the other candidates continue to follow the traditional political practice of diplomatic deflection, or will they ride the anger wave and attack?

Wait and see tonight on CNN.

This blog was originally published on Forbes as GOP Debate: Zingers And Counterattacks on Wednesday, September 16, 2015.