Early presidential debates—with seven, eight, or 11 candidates on the stage all at once—ask one question. It’s a question that is never articulated, but that lurks within every other question asked by the moderators: Who’s in charge?
The 1992 Democratic field was derided as the “seven dwarfs,” just as it had been in 1988, until Bill Clinton’s magnetic TV presence revealed the one giant among them. In 2000, George W. Bush established his ascendancy over rivals like Steve Forbes by smilingly describing the other candidates as “my buddies.” (I’ll mention in case anybody cares that I’d later write speeches in the George W. Bush administration.) In 2012, Mitt Romney again and again showed himself the most poised and unflappable person on the stage.
Now we are viewing the biggest presidential field yet. Each debate to date has been a scramble for mastery. Who acts like a commander? Who submits to command?
The candidates understand this. They all arrive with small strategies to assert or deny dominance over the other. Chris Christie told Carly Fiorina last night, “You can interrupt everyone else on this stage. You can’t interrupt me.” Mike Huckabee offered compliments to other debaters—to compliment is to claim the right to judge—and point-blank refused to let moderator Jake Tapper draw him into any of the personal confrontations Tapper sought to incite through the long evening.
But out of all the little tussles, two pairs of exchanges will be remembered after the details of the debate fade: Trump vs. Bush and Fiorina vs. Trump.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush arrived ready to rumble—and again and again lost control of the situation. He suggested that Trump had tried to buy his support for casino gambling in Florida, and was left flabbergasted when Trump not only flat-out denied it, but went on to claim that if he, Trump, had wanted to buy Jeb Bush, he easily could have done so.
Bush was baffled again when he twice called on Trump to apologize to Bush’s wife. Trump not only refused, but changed the subject by offering a compliment to Bush’s wife. Bush accepted the compliment, seemingly oblivious that to compliment is just as much an act of dominance as to insult. Through the encounter, Trump interrupted Bush—and Bush allowed himself to be interrupted. Having interrupted, Trump—in an especially vicious masterstroke—then granted Bush permission to talk: “Go ahead.” Bush compliantly went ahead.
Once Bush made the decision to fight Trump—probably a bad decision, and one wisely eschewed by Senator Marco Rubio and Governor John Kasich—but once he made that decision, he needed to win. He needed to hit as hard as Trump hit him. Trump has something to say about Bush’s immigrant wife? Say something about Trump’s two immigrant wives—one of whom accused Trump of violent physical abuse after he discarded her. Trump suggests he could have bought you? Don’t protest your innocence. Who gave him the right to judge you? Hit back with a fiercer allegation of your own. If you can’t think of one, buy a second-hand copy of Wayne Barrett’s book on Trump’s alleged Mafia connections—mine cost $20—and pluck one from those pages.
If you yield the floor, point out that you’ve said your piece. If granted permission to talk, don’t accept it. You’re applying for the job of boss. Act like the boss.
The best contrast: Fiorina vs. Trump. Again and again, she out-boxed him. She declined invitations to criticize him personally. When asked about Trump’s comment about her face, she reframed an insult to her as an insult to every woman in America. Trump responded with his biggest mistake of the night. He retreated, praising Fiorina as “a beautiful woman.”
But this one time, the rule that to compliment is to dominate rebounded against Trump. The debate-night flattery was as glaringly unprofessional as the previous insult, and every woman watching would be reminded of some leering boorish man that she’d had to deal with. This was the one time that complimenting rebounded against the complimenter. Yes, Trump was acting like the boss all right—but the kind of boss who costs the company a sexual-harassment lawsuit.
I’d expected Trump to react to Fiorina’s pre-planned protest against his remarks about her face with a follow-up attack. “I shouldn’t have commented on her looks. I should have said that she wrecked her company, laid off thousands of workers, and walked away with a $40 million golden parachute.” But maybe it was just as well he didn’t. When he finally did get around to Fiorina’s corporate record, she was more than ready for him, hitting back hard with a plausible defense of her record—and a cutting critique of Trump’s own business practices.
Unlike Jeb Bush, Fiorina never registered a reaction to anything Trump said of her. Bush showed shock, incredulity, outrage. Perhaps he imagined that by showing outrage, he’d convince the audience that he was telling the truth and Trump was lying. What he also showed, though, was that he did not govern his emotions and could not convert anger into effective action. Fiorina registered nothing. She just hit back harder than she’d been hit.
The world is full of bullies much more powerful and dangerous than Donald Trump ever could or will be. Trump usefully stood in for all of them, and offered the audience a glimpse of how a president would deal with them. Who had clarity and strength and self-control? Who lacked those qualities? As Fiorina said in an early statement: A campaign reveals character over time and under pressure.
We remain primates, who seek from our pack-leaders qualities of both prudence and strength. We don’t make those assessments with the conscious parts of our brains, but from places more primordial. Trump has rocketed to first place by deliberately humiliating his competitors, and especially his favorite victim, Jeb Bush. Last night he did it again. But maybe the most important moments for the future of the race were the moments when one of those competitors rebuffed and defied him.