Who won the GOP debate? Easiest answer of them all: Megyn Kelly did. Revenge, as it turns out, isn’t served cold, but served smoothly, professionally, and served without any obvious sense of entitlement or obvious display of pique or obvious chip on the shoulder. But revenge did have be served and serve it she did, volley after volley, with tough questions and fair ones.
“I have to address the elephant in the room,” she said, smiling, directing her first question to Ted Cruz, who lobbed it back amiably enough, mock-insulting everyone on the stage, later joking that if the questions got any meaner he’d have to leave the stage. (Another joke, yes, but Marco Rubio had the better one -- nothing would compel him to leave the stage).
Cruz’s joke did her a small favor -- as icebreaker that instantly took the light off of her. She smiled again. The crowd in Iowa laughed. The elephant thus addressed, the debate could move on.
Kelly, never once, gave the impression of someone who had been bullied, or who had been the subject of a withering diatribe, in social media or elsewhere, by the elephant who wasn’t in fact in the room. The exact opposite: Her questions were tough and concise.
To Cruz, “You said you were glad that he was running as a Republican. But when he started to criticize you, your message changed, and you suddenly started to portray him as the voice of the Washington cartel, and suggested he would do the Democrats’ bidding. Which is it?”
Or this to Jeb Bush, “you and the super PACs supporting you continue to blanket the airwaves with cutting ads, not against Mrs. Clinton, but against your fellow Republicans, especially Senator Rubio. Do these attacks do more harm than good by targeting those candidates who appear to have the best chance of defeating Mrs. Clinton?”
There were plenty more, and not one that didn’t have a hook or barb designed to get the candidate off his message and into the weeds of his campaign message.She did -- in other words -- what professional debate moderators are supposed to do.
Everyone watching knew exactly what had happened to Kelly, but they might have been a little less clear on the “whys.” Donald Trump had been angered by her line of questions about women during the first debate last summer, and another feud was born. He refused to attend the debate if she was a moderator. To FNC chief Roger Ailes Credit, he stood by Kelly. The show would go on and she would be the star of it.
Ailes, as a result, won last night too. Kelly was set squarely in the center of the debate panel -- vitally symbolic positioning. Not off to the side, but squarely in the middle. The unspoken message was not only that she was here, but that she was the boss too.
It perhaps wasn’t Kelly’s “best” night on TV -- that’s impossible to quantify -- but it was indisputably her finest. One observation has been made so often that it has maybe lost its true meaning or context, but even in 2016, to be a woman on television remains a difficult and not unperilous proposition. Barbara Walters may have beaten the path, and knocked down anything or anyone who got in her way. But that doesn’t mean the path was necessarily cleared for all those who came after. Kelly had to fight her own battle Thursday night. She did. And how. Maybe it was her best night after all too.