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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Three Dog Night

The moderators have a bad debate.

CNBC moderators (left to right) Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and John Harwood. ENLARGE
CNBC moderators (left to right) Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and John Harwood. Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
In conventional terms, Jeb Bush was the big loser of last night’s debate. His attack on Marco Rubio for missing Senate votes fell flat and left him looking deflated. Later he made the oddest statement of the night: “You find a Democrat that’s for cutting taxes—cutting spending 10 dollars, I’ll give them a warm kiss.”
It’s a shame. Bush is probably the best-qualified candidate in terms of policy and management experience. But the presidency is partly a political job, and running for president entirely so. Even Bush’s most ardent supporters cannot be eagerly anticipating the prospect of his facing inevitable Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in debate a year hence.
But if anyone put on a worse performance than Bush, it was CNBC’s moderators: John Harwood, Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla. That became clear when Ted Cruz answered the second question posed to him. The lengthy exchange is worth quoting in full:

Quintanilla: Sen. Cruz, congressional Republicans, Democrats and the White House are about to strike a compromise that would raise the debt limit, prevent a government shutdown, and calm financial markets that fear of another Washington-created crisis is on the way. Does your opposition to it show that you’re not the kind of problem-solver American voters want?
Cruz: You know, let me say something at the outset. The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. [applause]
This is not a cage match. 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 people care about? [applause]
Quintanilla: Does this count? Do we get credit for this one?
Cruz: And Carl—Carl, I’m not finished yet. The contrast with the Democratic debate, where every fawning question from the media was, “Which of you is more handsome and wise?” And let me be clear.
Quintanilla: So, this is a question about the debt limit, which you have 30 seconds left to answer, should you choose to do so.
Cruz: Let me be clear. The men and women on this stage have more ideas, more experience, more common sense than every participant in the Democratic debate. That debate reflected a debate between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. [laughter and applause]
And nobody watching at home believes that any of the moderators has any intention of voting in a Republican primary. The questions that are being asked shouldn’t be trying to get people to tear into each other. It should be: What are your substantive solutions to [inaudible]?
Quintanilla: OK, I just want the record to reflect that I asked you about the debt limit and I have no answer.
Cruz: You want me to answer that question? I’m happy to answer the question. I’m happy to answer the question, but let me say how the question—[inaudible crosstalk from Quintanilla]—let me tell you how that—let me tell you how that—
Harwood: We’re moving on. Sen. [Rand] Paul, I’ve got a question for you on the same subject.
Cruz: So you don’t actually want to hear the answer, John?
Harwood: Senator Paul?
Cruz: You don’t want to hear the answer. You just want to [inaudible] insults.
Harwood: You used your time on something else. Sen. Paul?
Cruz: You’re not interested in an answer.
Harwood: I’m interested in an answer from Sen. Paul. Sen. Paul . . . [continues with question]
Now, it must be said that Cruz‘s description of the Democratic debate is somewhat exaggerated. Anderson Cooper, after listing some of Mrs. Clinton’s flip-flops, asked her, “Will you say anything to get elected?” then followed up with, “Do you change your political identity based on who you’re talking to?” That’s not what we call fawning.
And while it’s true the Democratic debate was considerably friendlier than any of the Republican ones have been, media bias is not the only reason. The small number and low quality of Mrs. Clinton’s intraparty rivals are factors as well.
Further, one can hardly fault the moderators for cutting Cruz off after he exhausted his allotted time. And Quintanilla had half a point in noting that his question was not without substantive content, though Cruz had the other half inasmuch as Quintanilla’s framing was adversarial and ad hominem.
All that said, Cruz dominated the exchange, putting Quintanilla on his heels and prompting Harwood’s ungraceful rescue attempt. The senator’s point about the tenor of the earlier questions was indisputable; he made himself look high-minded and the moderators small. That effect carried over, so that Cruz still seemed high-minded even as he was attempting to skirt the time limit.
Several of the other candidates piled on. Marco Rubio, referring to the coverage of last week’s Benghazi hearing, observed that Mrs. Clinton “has her super PAC helping her out, the American mainstream media.” Chris Christie parried another Quintanilla question, about calls for government regulation of fantasy football sites (after a meandering answer by Bush that included the phrase “I have no clue”):
Christie: Carl, are we really talking about getting government involved in fantasy football? [laughter] We have—wait a second, we have $19 trillion in debt. We have people out of work. We have ISIS and al Qaeda attacking us. And we’re talking about fantasy football? Can we stop? How about this? How about we get the government to do what they’re supposed to be doing—secure our borders, protect our people, and support American values and American families. Enough on fantasy football. Let people play. Who cares?
The worst moment for the moderators came in an exchange between Quick and Trump:
Quick: Mr. Trump, let’s stay on this issue of immigration. You have been very critical of Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook who has wanted to increase the number of these H1Bs [visas for skilled workers].
Trump: I was not at all critical of him. I was not at all. In fact, frankly, he’s complaining about the fact that we’re losing some of the most talented people. They go to Harvard. They go to Yale. They go to Princeton. They come from another country and they’re immediately sent out.
I am all in favor of keeping these talented people here so they can go to work in Silicon Valley.
Quick: So you’re in favor of…
Trump: So I have nothing at all critical of him.
Quick: Where did I read this and come up with this that you were—
Trump: Probably, I don’t know—you people write the stuff.
He went off on a tangent about super PACs, and she returned to the subject:
Quick: You know, Mr.—you know, Mr. Trump, if I may (inaudible). You’ve been—you have been—you had talked a little bit about Marco Rubio. I think you called him Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator because he was in favor of the H1B.
Trump: I never said that. I never said that.
Quick: So this was an erroneous article the whole way around?
Trump: You’ve got another gentleman in Florida, who happens to be a very nice guy, but not—
Quick: My apologies. I’m sorry.
Later, after a commercial break, Quick brought it up again: “I found where I read that before. It was from the website, and it says—it says that again, Mark Zuckerburg’s personal senator, Marco Rubio, has a bill to triple H-1Bs that would decimate women and minorities.”
So Quick had been right all along, but her failure of preparedness allowed Trump to get the better of her. He answered the follow-up with noncommittal generalities in praise of legal immigration, and she replied: “Thank you, sir.”
In his closing statement, Trump cited the debate itself as an example of his negotiation power:
Trump: These folks, CNBC, they had it down at three, 3½ hours. . . . I went out and said, it’s ridiculous. . . . Nobody wants to watch 3½, or three hours. . . . We called Ben [Carson], he was with me 100%. We called in, we said that’s it. We’re not doing it. . . . In about two minutes I renegotiated it so we can get the hell out of here. Not bad.
Harwood got the last word on the subject: “Just for the record, the debate was always going to be two hours.” But it was his word against Trump’s, and Republican viewers probably did not give the benefit of the doubt to the moderator in this trivial spat.
After it was over, Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, tweeted: “CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled.” Then another tweet: “I will fight to ensure future debates allow for a more robust exchange.” But Priebus also took criticism for enlisting the network as a sponsor in the first place. Our favorite was a tweet from Cindy Cooper: “Dude. I’m a housewife in Arizona and saw this coming. Come on.”
Last year, as reported, Priebus and the RNC hatched a plan “to seize control of GOP’s presidential primary debates”:
“Our debates will be good for our candidates and for voters—not a field day for the media,” Priebus told members of the RNC on Friday in Chicago, shortly before the party approved its final rules for the 2016 presidential nomination fight. . . .
Republicans are hoping to keep the debates from focusing on issues that could alienate the party’s eventual nominee from swing voters, especially some social issues. And GOP officials are still fuming over the second general election presidential debate in 2012, during which CNN anchor Candy Crowley challenged Romney’s critique of President Barack Obama’s response to the Benghazi attacks. The committee is empowered to negotiate with media outlets over the timing and selection of moderators for the debates, demands that are likely to be met with hostility by many outlets. Some Republicans have suggested that some debates could be moderated by [GOP] partisans, in a bid to make the debates more friendly to their candidates.
Salon notes that Cruz repeated that suggestion last night, on Fox News’s “Hannity”: “How about a debate moderated by Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Rush Limbaugh? Now that would be a debate.” (Unsurprisingly, Hannity agreed.) CNN’s Dylan Byers reports that other candidates, including Carson, Rubio, Christie and Paul, are “still chafing” at CNBC and “are planning to take their grievances to the Republican National Committee in a forthcoming conference call.”
But as poorly as the CNBC moderators performed, was the result really bad for the Republicans? We recall nothing contrary to the goal of not alienating swing voters (in part because this debate was supposed to focus on economic issues, not social ones). Experience with adversity will be useful to the eventual nominee in going up against Mrs. Clinton—and with moderators who presumably will not be sympathetic to the GOP.
Further, there’s an obvious disadvantage for the party to Cruz’s idea of using conservative talk-show hosts as moderators. They might end up playing favorites among the Republican candidates in ways that further attract primary voters but put off general-election swing voters. The GOP may be better off with moderators who are equally hostile to all its candidates.

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