Another week, another debate, and another opportunity for candidates to play victims to the big bad media. Last night’s Republican debate was a bit more fiery than most had expected. Shots were fired between Jebb Bush and Marco Rubio, but the real showdown was between the candidates and CNBC’s moderators. Most agree that the candidates won.
Marco Rubio scored big points giving Conservative voters what they want: a reason to believe the appealing lies their candidates tell. Slate has a slanted but fairly sound summary of the evening, including this:
Half an hour into Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate, Sen. Ted Cruz exploded at the CNBC moderators. “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz fumed. “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?”
Take Cruz’s speech. It doesn’t even match the debate transcript. To begin with, nobody called Trump a villain. CNBC’s John Harwood asked Trump how he would fulfill his promises to “build a wall and make another country pay for it” (Mexico), “send 11 million people out of the country” (undocumented immigrants), and “cut taxes $10 trillion without increasing the deficit.” Second, nobody asked Carson whether he could do math. CNBC’s Becky Quick asked Carson how he would close the $1 trillion gap between current federal spending and the revenue projected from Carson’s 15 percent flat tax. Third, nobody asked Kasich to insult his colleagues. Kasich volunteered that Trump’s and Carson’s promises were impractical and incoherent. All of these questions were substantive. In fact, Cruz’s speech was a diversion from the query that had been posed to him—namely, why did he oppose this week’s agreement to raise the debt limit?
What’s so smart about Ted Cruz’s speech is that it actually does three things at once. First, it blasts the Left-leaning media, a tactic that Republican voters will always eat right up and ask for more (without asking any other questions). Second, it allows Cruz to avoid answering the question that he was asked (I doubt most viewers even remembered what the question was by the time Cruz was finished ranting and soaking up the applause). Third, it covertly jabs at each of the candidates mentioned by slyly reminding the audience of the media’s criticisms, tacitly acknowledging those criticisms while also disowning them. Bravo, Mr. Cruz.
CNBC was last night’s biggest loser. Ratings fell compared to previous debates, and most viewers agree that the network came across poorly in light of the candidate’s criticisms.
Critics who point out that CNBC’s moderators had an agenda are correct. It’s clear that the mods were trying to press the candidates to answer tough questions that they’ve been avoiding for obvious reasons. That’s probably indicative of a liberal bias. But so what? None of the questions asked were illegitimate.
Indeed, Donald Trump has not yet explained how he plans on getting Mexico to pay for a wall, or how he plans — practically or fiscally — to round up and deport some 12 million people. Ben Carson has not yet explained how his tax plan could be implemented without a deficit — simple math exposes big gaps in the numbers. Marco Rubio has missed more votes than any other Senator running for President — the moderates didn’t even raise that criticism, Jebb Bush did. And yes, John Kasich decided to attack his opponents all on his own, he was not prompted to do so.
In short, the criticism that the media leans Left is valid, but that doesn’t mean the questions posed by CNBC’s moderators are invalid. Maybe Republican voters don’t care that Trump doesn’t have substantive answers on immigration, or that Ben Carson’s tax plan doesn’t add up, or that Marco Rubio has skipped a hell of a lot of votes. Maybe none of that will matter because these issues will all be long forgotten by the time we enter a general election.
Maybe the real question Republican voters should ask themselves is: who can defeat Hillary? But if that’s the reality, why don’t these candidates just say so? I’d have a lot of respect for a candidate who stands on stage and responds, “Hey, let’s get real — what we should really be debating is who the best general election candidate would be.” Instead the candidates dodge the issues by attacking the media for asking obvious questions. So we got no answers, but that’s fine. We weren’t really expecting them anyway.