Dana Perino’s final question in last night’s cacophonous Republican debate summed up the whole sordid spectacle.
Saying that Donald Trump would run away with the nomination if everyone on stage stayed in the race, she asked the seven candidates to vote one of their number “off the island” and out of the contest.
This was a game show as far as the moderators were concerned.
The candidates — led by Ron DeSantis, who objected first and loudest — refused to play along.
But it was already too late: They all made themselves look like reality-TV wannabes just by showing up.
For several of the candidates that might be just what they want. Chris Christie certainly has a better shot at a television career than he does at the Republican nomination.
But Gov. DeSantis must have found himself envious of Trump’s decision to skip the debates.
Trump doesn’t show up not because these political pro-wrestling matches are beneath his dignity but because his presence would only boost the show’s ratings, and that would do more for his rivals’ exposure than for his.
If DeSantis also sat out the debates, his audience would tune out, too, and “Survivor: Reagan Library Series” would have to make do with whoever was bored enough to tune in to watch the third-tier hopefuls bait and sass one another.
Ilia Calderon of Univision was one of three moderators, together with Fox News mainstays Perino and Stuart Varney.
But Calderon was not so much a moderator as an opponent, firing off loaded questions about immigration that sounded like they’d been drafted by the Democratic National Committee.
Instead of straightforwardly asking Vivek Ramaswamy to explain his opposition to the “birthright citizenship” interpretation of the 14th Amendment — which says children of illegal immigrants automatically get US citizenship just by being born here — she framed her question as a gotcha, asking Ramaswamy on what grounds he would “expel legal citizens.”
She took the same approach with DeSantis, posing a tendentiously framed question to him about Florida history standards that, according to DeSantis’ enemies, showed slavery in a partly favorable light.
DeSantis said the premise of her question was “a hoax.” But Sen. Tim Scott, who had criticized the Florida guidelines, took advantage of the opening to score points against the governor.
The standards, like birthright citizenship, are fair game. The way these and other questions were set up by Calderon, however, typically assumed wrongdoing or ill intentions on the part of the candidate.
They might as well have been interviewed on MSNBC.
For Ramaswamy all publicity is good publicity — he’s a longshot candidate with nothing to lose and plenty of name recognition to gain. He’s smart, telegenic and provocative. Taking part in the debates makes sense for him.
It makes sense for Christie, too. And for Nikki Haley, who as the only woman in the race and a relatively moderate Republican is guaranteed good headlines every time.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum also can’t lose by participating — not that he can win the nomination, but he can only raise his otherwise nonexistent national profile.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, however, is only diminished by keeping such company, and he looks and sounds like yesterday’s news with younger and less predictable Republicans on stage.
Sen. Tim Scott had a good night, and he’s far enough behind in the polls that he too needs all the attention he can get, even if it comes in a form as demeaning as last night’s debate.
But Ron DeSantis has made a terrible mistake. By taking part in the debates, he’s made himself seem like just another punchline and punching bag, a guy for Ramaswamy and Haley to talk over and Calderon to berate.
The only winner in this game is Donald Trump. Ron DeSantis knows that now, but now may be too late.