Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Grand Old Party’s final debate before the first voting contest of the 2016 presidential campaign. It’s the Great Bathroom Mirror Debate.
Please welcome Donald Trump and Fox News Channel Chairman and Chief Executive Roger Ailes. You will notice that, while those figures in the bathroom mirror have two very different appearances, they share the same combative personality.
Trump and Ailes are both all about winning. Their common mantra is: It’s not whether you win or lose - it’s whether you win! They also believe that just plain winning isn’t enough - you must shatter, vanquish and destroy your opponent.
I don’t really know Trump, but I have known Ailes for decades. I met him in his third career - not when he was a hopeful young boxer in Cleveland; and not when he was breaking into television as producer of “The Mike Douglas Show.” When I met Ailes, he was breaking into bigtime politics, advising Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and many conservative Republican politicians in the martial art of campaign debating and advertising. Ailes won back then not by back-pedaling and outpointing (as some boxers do) but by going for the political KO. We never really agreed on anything political, but I respected his ability to win even when I didn’t always respect the way he won. We developed a respectful adversarial relationship, in the manner of politicos and journalists who cover them.
So I am reporting today on how Ailes just lost The Great Bathroom Mirror Debate. He lost it not because he was outpunched by his opponent, but because he forgot the classic rule he’d long known: You win by sticking to your own strategy and you don’t get suckered into playing the other guy’s game.
Ailes just let himself get suckered into playing Trump’s wild and crazy game of reality TV eccentrics. He threw a wild punch that didn’t damage his opponent and may have been his own undoing.
Trump started it. With polls saying he was virtually tied with Sen. Ted Cruz in Iowa - but leading big-time in New Hampshire and nationally - Trump clearly figured he had more to lose than win in Monday’s Iowa caucuses if he climbed into a Fox debate mosh pit one more time. So Trump, being sly like a Fox, reopened his complaints about Fox anchor Megyn Kelly.
RERACK AND REWIND: In August, Kelly asked Trump a debate question he should have anticipated, reciting a litany of Trump’s crude comments about women. Two days later, Trump reverted to type, saying of Kelly’s question: “(S)he starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions. You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes - blood coming out of her wherever.” Trump wants you to know he wasn’t talking about menstruation, no matter what it sounded like to you.
FAST FORWARD: Over the weekend, Trump demanded Ailes replace Kelly in Thursday’s scheduled Fox debate; Ailes properly and professionally defended Kelly and refused. Then Trump escalated his sophomoric Tweets and rants, warning he might pull out of the debate.
But surprisingly, Ailes fell for Trump’s taunts and reverted to his old political attack ways. Soon the network that prides itself on being “fair and balanced,” was issuing taunting statements: “(W)e’re very surprised he’s willing to show that much fear about being questioned by Megyn Kelly.” And: “We learned from a secret back channel, that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president - a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.”
Now Fox was playing in Trump’s sandbox. The billionaire rushed to proclaim he wouldn’t help build Fox’s audience and profits - “Why do I have to make Fox rich?” His campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, announced: “He’s definitely not participating in the Fox News debate. His word is his bond.”
Ailes got suckered into throwing a wild punch that didn’t knock down his opponent but rather gave his opponent an opening to escape. Worse yet, the Fox News chief not only lost his fairness when he swung and missed, he also lost his balance - and ended up on the canvas with Trump chortling and hoping he’s been saved by the bell.
We await Monday’s decision, when Iowa’s caucusing Republicans will tell us who won the Great Bathroom Mirror Debate.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.