Thursday night’s GOP debate was a Fox News affair from beginning to end. Brett Baier opened by asking the candidates onstage to pledge their fealty to the Republican Party. Megyn Kelly ended it by asking them a question about God that morphed into one about God and veterans. You can’t get much more Fox News than that. Despite that—or actually, because of it—the prime-time event was a complete and total success: Fox News being Fox News and also Fox News at its best.
For two hours, Baier, Kelly, and Chris Wallace kept 10 Republican hopefuls on topic and within their time limits. The moderators never allowed the debate to became a free-for-all, nor, worse, a one-for-all. They asked well-worded and thought-out questions that highlighted major differences within the Republican Party on a number of topics, including immigration, Social Security, and national surveillance—the last of which prompted one of the more memorable clashes of the night. “I don’t trust President Obama with our records,” Rand Paul told Chris Christie, adding: “I know you gave him a big hug.” Christie shot back: “The hugs that I remember are the hugs that I gave to the families who lost their people on Sept. 11.”
And when the Fox News trio couldn’t lead the candidates into the ring with one another, they put on the gloves themselves. They grilled Scott Walker and Marco Rubio on their inconsistent immigration views. They pressed Ben Carson on foreign policy and his general political inexperience, Mike Huckabee on Social Security, and Ted Cruz on his divisiveness. And they went after Ohio hometown hero John Kasich on his decision to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and his opposition to gay marriage.
The trio was even more aggressive when it came to two of the men in the middle of the stage. They questioned Jeb Bush about three of his biggest perceived liabilities: Common Core, immigration, and the Iraq war. It was on that last topic that the Fox News moderators pressed the hardest, asking him what he would tell the families of those American soldiers who died in Iraq. “How,” Kelly asked, “do you look at them now and say your brother’s war was a mistake?”
The moderators even did the impossible: They kept Donald Trump from running the show. Baier set the tone from the outset when he asked for a show of hands from any candidate unwilling to promise right then and there to support the eventual GOP nominee and to swear off a third-party run. When, as expected, Trump raised his hand, Baier made sure the stakes were clear to everyone. “An independent run would almost certainly hand the race over to Democrats and likely another Clinton,” Baier told Trump. “You can’t say tonight that you can make that pledge?”
Things didn’t get any easier for The Donald from there. Kelly ticked off some of the horrible things Trump has called women—“fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs,” and “disgusting animals”—and then asked him whether “that sounds to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president.” Wallace pressed Trump to finally provide the evidence he says he has that the Mexican government is intentionally sending criminals to the United States (“Why not use this first Republican presidential debate to share your proof with the American people?”), and Baier zeroed in on Trump’s previous support of a single-payer health care system (“Why were you for that then and why aren’t you for it now?”).
The typical post-debate analysis is unkind to the moderators, often because the moderators do not do a good job. But tonight the Fox News crew did the opposite: They hosted a rigorous and fun debate that made the GOP nominating contest finally look like a fair fight.