Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum evidently thought they could moderate a two-hour Republican presidential debate in a fictitious, Donald-Trump-less world on Wednesday. But despite eight years passing since Trump singlehandedly commandeered the party, the moderators seemingly failed to grasp the true hold he held—on voters, the debate audience, and the candidates themselves.
“Why is this song striking such a nerve in this country right now? What do you think it means?” MacCallum posed to the eight candidates who bothered to show up.
It was the softball question one could picture closing a debate full of substantive discussions on policy and action plans. Yet its inclusion at the top—prompted by two separate follow-ups that could’ve easily dropped the “Richmond” framing—immediately set up the moderators for failure, as was evidenced by the candidates’ antics throughout the meandering two-hour affair.
Take the first of multiple “show of hands” questions, coming in just before the first (and oddly timed) commercial break. Following a question posted by a Young Americans for Freedom member, MacCallum asked the candidates to raise their hands to see who believed human behavior had caused Earth’s climate to change. It appropriately prompted ire among the candidates, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dismissing the idea entirely.
“We’re not schoolchildren,” he said in an apparent imitation of former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson’s refusal in 2008. “Let’s have the debate.”
(DeSantis proceeded to not directly answer the question, instead attacking Biden over his “no comment” statement on the recent Maui wildfires before getting hijacked by businessman Vivek Ramaswamy.)
“Show of hands” questions have long been the subject of derision, as they often don’t allow candidates to provide substantive answers on weighty subjects. CNN even banned it during a Democratic primary debate in 2019, but it did not stop this year’s Fox News moderators from trying it repeatedly.
“If former President Trump is convicted in a court of law, will you still support him as your party’s choice?” Baier asked, referencing the Republican National Committee’s mandated pledge for each candidate to support the eventual nominee. The question on its own was a fair one, particularly as candidates such as former governors Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson have bucked the idea of eventually supporting Trump.
But, yet again, a moderator demanded the candidates raise their hands. The question did, however, allow for another facet to emerge: clarity on Donald Trump’s grip over the Republican Party without ever stepping foot in the room.
Fox News restricted Trump surrogates from entering its “spin room” before and after the debate due to Trump’s refusal to appear, and the moderators actively chose not to ask questions about him for the entire first hour. But Baier’s question led into a 25-minute discussion that made it obvious why Trump wouldn’t show up to the debate. Queries on the events of Jan. 6 regurgitated the debate on whether Mike Pence abided by the Constitution (and led to boos for those who attacked Trump’s moral failures, which prompted Baier to chastise the audience). DeSantis’ groveling to move past the issue led to another round of discussion on it. The party’s bitter positions about Trump were on display, leaving the candidates bickering in a way that offered little service to voters at home.
Fox could’ve pivoted to zero or fewer questions about the unequivocal leading candidate if their goal was to block him out, but in centering him as the star while the other candidates feuded away about his position, it showcased the network’s position as desperate for his attention with no ability to claim it.
There were bright spots. Baier and MacCallum managed to adhere to their selected topics’ timeblocks with a steady pace, transitioning into commercial breaks without cutting a candidate off. Their moderation of the Ukraine and abortion discussions, the latter of which offered a clear view on most of the candidates’ positions on a federal ban, were refreshingly substantive.
But what little goodwill they earned was diminished in an ill-advised lightning round, allowing 2024’s version of the Amy Kloubacher-Pete Buttigieg feud—assumed by Pence and Ramaswamy this year—to trade barbs again. After a squabble between the two grew more animated, it prompted the remaining candidates to practically plead for some decorum. “You have to get control of this debate!” Haley yelled.
“This is a lightning round, not Rolling Thunder,” Baier responded, seemingly re-establishing a seriousness to the debate.
Less than three minutes later, MacCallum asked Chris Christie about UFOs.
The Daily Beast