The GOP presidential debate hosted in Colorado by CNBC was Candy Crowley’s worst nightmare.
Though they managed to work in a bit of policy talk, despite dumb questions, the men and one woman we saw on stage in Boulder had finally learned one very important lesson: Moderators and questioners from the mainstream media are not your friends, Republicans.
In short, there was no repeat of flummoxed Mitt Romney meekly submitting to “fact checking” by biased CNN moderator Crowley in the lively and informative CNBC debate. The gang had wised up. The CNBC panel helped them by being particularly rude and obtuse.
After a first question in which candidates were asked to name a personal weakness (and which they turned into answers about their strengths and the strength of the entire GOP field), moderator John Harwood, who works for CNBC and the New York Times, kicked off the debate proper with this, for Donald Trump: “Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?”
Well, it was definitely a comic book CNBC panel. Bear in mind tough questions are to be welcomed at a presidential debate, but the debate questions, from a smug and incurious set of CNBC journalists, were not designed to elicit useful information for voters. It was abundantly clear that Harwood & Co., were only bothering to pose questions in order to shush the candidates so they could move onto their next question. Even Maverick McCain could not have mistaken these folks for friends.
Republicans always score points in a primary debate by attacking the media, but I thought last night the Republicans did it skillfully and without coming across as being angry, as Newt Gingrich often did in the primary debates last go round. They were simply stating something important, zestfully, and often with a tinge of humor, that needs to be recognized when judging debate performances. Sen. Marco Rubio nailed it when he said that PACs are often attacked by the Democrats and the media but that Hillary Clinton has a “super PAC helping her out, the American mainstream media.”
Sen. Ted Cruz was likewise impressive in making sure that viewers knew that, if the GOP candidates got to address issues, it would only be because the panel had failed to sidetrack them. “This is not a cage match,” he lectured the CNBC crew. “And, you look at the questions — ‘Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain?’ ‘Ben Carson, can you do math?’ ‘John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?’ ‘Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?’ ‘Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?’ How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?”
The panelists did get to talk about their tax plans. On the tough questions front, I’d like to have seen more incisive questioning of Dr. Ben Carson, who has all the right instincts but to my mind has yet to explain how we would finance a system that gives us a choice between Medicare and health savings accounts. Oh, wait — that sort of thing would require a policy debate!
Although there were some fireworks between candidates, especially Jeb Bush and Rubio, the candidates seemed to bond with each other because of the hostile panel. And we saw something similar from the audience: the audience had the candidates’ back. When one of the questioners asked Carson a particularly belligerent question (Carson hadn’t “vetted” a website that posted a picture of him — the horror!), the audience booed. “See, they get it,” said the genial doc, in a Shakespearian aside.
RNC chairman Reince Priebus was spot on to rush into the spin room with a statement attacking the CNBC panel. The GOP addressed the matter of hostile panels in a postmortem on the 2012 campaign titled “Growth and Opportunity.” Apparently, Priebus just hasn’t gotten around to dealing with the issues yet. He should — the audience will be mixed and won’t be as able to do his job for him when the GOP nominee debates Hillary Clinton. Get busy, Reince.