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GOP candidates mostly debate moderators, not opponents’ policies

REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Former Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson during Wednesday night's debate on CNBC.

So I watched the Republican debate Wednesday night and this here is my half-observed, half-imagined report.

I’m imagining a society of substance-oriented citizens who have organized themselves into a democracy for the purpose of what we, in this world, sometimes call self-government.

So that requires elections, which (if we’re really going to call it self-government) requires those seeking top leadership positions to go on TV and describe the ideas and policies that they would pursue if they were elected to the highest office.

(In the imaginary best-case, this probably wouldn’t involve television, which is full of stupid visual distractions. Ideally, it would all be done in writing, but then that requires reading and also deprives us of the pleasure of psychoanalyzing the candidates and deciding how much we would like to be friends with them based on their body language and facial expressions.)

So OK, we can work with television. For purposes of my daydream, even though it was on television and even though the World Series was on another channel (not to mention old movies and porn and perpetual reruns of “Cheers” and “Friends” and etc.), the denizens of my democracy would sit and watch and listen and learn and evaluate and, at the end, realize that they needed to study up on how Social Security and Medicare and government revenue and spending really work before they could make up their minds whose ideas and policies made the most sense.

OK, enough with my imaginary exercise. What we get is what we got. And it was a not-so-very-illuminating two hours. (Donald Trump, by the way, claims to have negotiated it down from three, and said so on the air. Seriously. And I think he might be right, although the chief moderator, John Harwood of CNBC, said it was always going to be two hours.)

At the moment, I’m not inclined to blame the wasted opportunity on the candidates. They came. They talked about their positions, although how well could we really expect the positions to be litigated within the time limits imposed — yes, by the organizers — based on the understanding of the average attention span of the audience? And the candidates constantly talked beyond the time allowed, even though the audience could hear the moderators trying to shut them up in the interest of time management. And, of course, they bickered with each other a tad, although nearly not as much as expected nor, it seems, as much as the moderators wanted.

Bar fight

So, yes, I think I’m going to go with the blame-theory offered by the candidates themselves, who complained early and often that the moderators were promoting a bar fight, while the cowboys (and one cowgirl, Carly Fiorina) just wanted to have a friendly exchange of tax plans.

And every time the combatants complained about the questions, the studio audience erupted into applause, which must surely have dampened the determination of the interrogators. And then there were at least five or six occasions when the questionee rejected the factual basis of the question and — pending the findings of high-priced fact-checkers at the big media organizations — this seemed to have an intimidating effect on the questioners.

The ideological/partisan take on that bad dynamic, delivered from the stage most vociferously by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, is that those asking the questions, being members of the media, were biased, hostile and unfair because the questionees were Republicans. I’m not buying that one, pending further review. I think the CNBC panelists were trying to be tough but fair but mostly tough. Still, the questioners’ pose of objectivity did seem to have let them down on several occasions and the audience turned into something of a lynch mob after a while.

The most amazing example was Harwood’s first question for Trump, which (I am not making this up) went thus:

Harwood: Mr. Trump, you’ve done very well in this campaign so far by promising to build a wall and make another country pay for it. Send 11 million people out of the country. Cut taxes $10 trillion without increasing the deficit. And make Americans better off because your greatness would replace the stupidity and incompetence of others.

Trump: That’s right.

Hardwood: Let’s be honest. Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?

Trump pointed out that the question was rude but, defying all reasonable expectations, was polite all evening.

My own expectation, at which I hinted Wednesday, was that the debate would be largely about the new pecking order in recent polls, which indicated that since Dr. Ben Carson had pulled ahead of Trump in the most recent polls, they would have to deal with one another in some way that would sort out exactly who was the frontrunner. Pretty much nothing like that happened.

When asked about them, Carson discussed some of his fairly radical views, such as going to a flat 10-percent tax on all income to replace the graduated income tax. He said this would, by some magic, replace all of the revenue produced by the current system. He denied that he was proposing 10 percent as the single tax rate, saying it would be more like 15. (He originally said it would be 10 percent, and in between he said that it would probably have to start out at 15 but then could be reduced to 10.)

Carson also previously suggested that Medicare and Medicaid should be replaced by a voucher system, but Carson now says his idea would not lead to the abolition of Medicare, merely to the creation of a new family-based voucher-ish option that most people would end up preferring and which would cost much less.

Carson was not asked about some of his other notable views, such as his belief that biblical story of the creation of the earth in six days by God is literally true.

But my main point here is that Trump, who insulted Carson’s religion a few days ago, did nothing to criticize his co-frontrunner. Carson was given nothing like frontrunner treatment and was less noticeable than several of his rivals. He observed the time limits and never interrupted to steal extra attention or kept talking after the moderators called time, as most of the others did. As a result, Carson got less airtime than most of the others.

Bush and Rubio

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush did try to go after his former protégé, Sen. Marco Rubio, for neglecting his Senate duties in order to run for president, but Bush makes a poor attack dog and the drama fizzled. The general consensus seemed to be that Rubio had a good night and Bush a bad one. Personally, I agree, but I suppose if the next round of polling doesn’t confirm that, the conventional wisdom will change.

Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich has recently been criticizing the two frontrunners in blunt terms. Harwood did invite Kasich to repeat those criticisms. Kasich, without mentioning any names, referred to some of the proposals of his rivals as “fantasy — like getting rid of Medicare and Medicaid.” But then he trailed off and never really went on the attack.

Cruz created the most dramatic moment of the night when he decided to confront the moderators with what he alleged were (and I am in no way disagreeing with this assessment) a series of hostile questions (although I am much more skeptical of Cruz’s other assertion that the questions were motivated by liberal bias). Here is what Cruz said (and he delivered this with considerable aplomb):

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. This is not a cage match. 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 contrast with the Democratic debate, where every fawning question from the media was, “Which of you is more handsome and why?”

Here’s an annotated transcript of the debate from the Washington Post for those who truly don’t want to be distracted by the facial expressions.

I’m sure there are various assessment of who did well. Here’s the lede (first paragraph) from the New York Daily News story, filed immediately after the debate concluded:

Marco Rubio shined, John Kasich punched, Donald Trump bullied and Jeb Bush fizzled in a debate Wednesday where the Republican candidates spent more time beating up on the media than each other.

Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/29/2015 - 10:43 am.

    Good line

    I’m not a fan of Ted Cruz at all, but I do like his last line, quoted above. It’s more of a sentence fragment than a sentence, but at least the criticism is pointed and close to being on-target.

  2. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 10/29/2015 - 11:03 am.

    Now even CNBC is liberal media for these Republicans?

    What could be left? Oh the always “right” fox. LOL

    • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 10/29/2015 - 11:39 am.

      The questions at the Fox debate were far more pointed than the questions posed by the CNBC crew.

      • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 10/29/2015 - 03:36 pm.

        This crew of Republicans will only answer questions from

        fox. But CNBC is not liberal, and rather than answer questions, they just call everything else liberal media. There is another term for their approach.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/29/2015 - 11:20 am.

    Ask yourself

    Do you think Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders would agree to debate on Fox News, moderated by Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly? Me neither.

  4. Submitted by Tim Smith on 10/29/2015 - 11:49 am.

    How come

    The liberal Dems debate “script” didn’t include the fantasy football question? I am sure they have well thought out rules, regulation and tax policy to go with that issue.

  5. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/29/2015 - 12:32 pm.

    What’s Your Point?

    That CNBC (the business network) is the leftie equivalent to Fox?

  6. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 10/29/2015 - 01:57 pm.

    Let’s not forget that…

    … CNBC is where Rick Santelli essentially kicked off the “Tea Party” movement with his 2009 rant.

  7. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/29/2015 - 02:15 pm.

    If only…

    If only we could see any of these face down a 11 hour hostile grilling fueled by millions of investigative dollars like HRC did last week. Trump would storm out, Christie blow up, Rubio gasp for water, Carson nod off. Like her or not, she is one tough old bird and any Republican who thinks they can beat her like a drum in a debate (as Christie said last night) is whistling in the dark.

  8. Submitted by Steven James Beto on 10/29/2015 - 04:58 pm.

    The Best Oligarchy Can Produce

    The enlightened intellect talks about ideas. The common mind talks about other people.

  9. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/29/2015 - 07:03 pm.


    is the most important thing.
    Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.

  10. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/29/2015 - 07:40 pm.


    There was, and is, nothing stopping any of the field from changing the subject, they do anyway, and turning the question into a selling point for one of their ideas. As we say in our world, “Can’t handle the heat get out of the kitchen” or better yet, find your self in a bad situation, Look in the mirror, “Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance” what was that quote” I am the master of my fate, I am the commander of my soul”
    Pretty pathetic when a Presidential candidate whines about tough question’s in practice, what the “H” should we expect when it really gets tough, more and louder whining? Looking for leadership folks, not cry babies.

  11. Submitted by Bill Willy on 10/29/2015 - 09:14 pm.

    The American people

    I hear “the American people” line in every other thing Republicans say about anything they don’t like:

    Ted Cruz, in this case: “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media.”

    The implication being it’s a well-established fact that ALL the American people ________ (fill in the blank: “know Obamacare is a complete disaster”; “are sick of big government taking away their freedom and taxing them to death,” etc.).

    But back to Ted’s assertion that “the American people don’t trust the media.”

    Really . . . I just saw a PBS Newshour segment in which the person behind talked about a couple things said in last night’s debate:

    “Moderator Carl Quintanilla asked Carson about his involvement with the company.

    ” ‘This is a company called Mannatech, a maker of nutritional supplements, with which you had a 10-year relationship,’ Quintanilla said. ‘They offered claims they could cure autism, cancer, Down Syndrome. They paid $7 million to settle a deceptive marketing lawsuit in Texas, and yet your involvement continues. Why?’

    ” ‘Well, that’s easy to answer: I didn’t have an involvement with them,’ replied Carson, a former pediatric neurosurgeon. ‘That is total propaganda. And this is what happens in our society — total propaganda. I did a couple speeches for them. I did speeches for other people. They were paid speeches. It is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of relationship with them. Do I take the product? Yes. I think it’s a good product.’ ”

    (Nice little plug for the product, seen by millions, he slipped in, no? He should definitely get a free trip to somewhere nice from Breadtech for that one!)

    According to Politifact, Carson, the esteemed children’s doctor, did promotional videos for the company, spoke on their behalf, endorsed the product up and down for years (details at the link below).

    Politifact’s ruling: “We rate Carson’s [non-involvement] claim False.”

    And how about this bold executive pronouncement last night from Carly Fiorina?

    ” ‘It is the height of hypocrisy for Mrs. Clinton to talk about being the first woman president, when every single policy she espouses and every single policy of President Obama has been demonstratively bad for women,’ Fiorina said. ‘Ninety-two percent of the jobs lost during Barack Obama’s first term belonged to women.’ ”

    What did politifact have to say about that?

    “The government data show an increase of 416,000 working women between January 2009 and January 2013. Total employment also rose by 1.3 million. So more women actually were working at the end of Obama’s first term compared with the day he first took office.

    “Our ruling: We rate this claim False.”

    It’s interesting the way Republicans constantly blame everything on “the media” (and have for decades). Especially when the heat’s on, like now: On the one hand, we’ve got the debator’s “Clown Car” phenomena going on; and, on the other, dysfunctional chaos in the House.

    Tough question? It’s “propaganda.” And, according to Marco Rubio, “the media is the DFL’s biggest superpac.” Maybe the constant repeating of that mantra has something to do with the way the media (CNBC, PBS and in this case) seems to catch people like Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina lying to millions of Americans, and, with a little help from a bumbling Majority Leader, the way it lets the American people know the House Benghazi committee hearings really were nothing but a long, multi-million dollar Bash Hillary All The Way Down Party! paid for by (“over-taxed”) taxpayers.

    Vast right wing conspiracy? “No way. Nothing but Hillary’s paranoia coupled with standard media propaganda.”

    Or maybe, as Ted Cruz might put it if he wasn’t one, that’s why Americans don’t trust the Republicans.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/30/2015 - 09:18 am.

      You’re right

      He should have said “thinking people,” the distinction I always use because, you’re right, they’re not the same.

  12. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 10/29/2015 - 09:15 pm.

    Where was the follow-up?

    I couldn’t believe my ears when Carly Fiorina got away with the bald statement that “every one” of Clinton’s and Obama’s policies is “demonstrably bad” for women. The moderators should have pounced on that howler like ducks on a junebug, asking her to specify which policies and how, exactly, they hurt women, but none of them challenged her to explain herself. Questioners too tough? Not in this case.

  13. Submitted by Roberta J Lee on 10/30/2015 - 05:36 am.

    GOP Candidates Debate

    It’s fortunate that Ben Carson is a brain surgeon so he can give all his fellow GOP 2016 Presidential Candidates ,( after a Democrat gets elected as our next President 2016) “Lobotomies” for free as courtesy to the general public, so they have a legitimate excuse to appear so” lame” in a public debate in case they all run again in 2020! Just kidding! LOL! I’m never going to vote for a Republican under any circumstances! Even a debate couldn’t sway me to do so; I decided at nine years old back in 1964 that LBJ was right to keep our standard of living for every citizen high in all ways ; I even admired him though the Vietnam War proved to be unpopular; ( one of my own brothers and many of his friends and classmates served in that war also). We cannot do our best as citizens if we don’t compromise and or agree on improving the quality of life for all Americans; stop dividing our citizens by sticking unfavorable labels on them ,such as” Homeless” for example! Worse yet is arresting folks that feed the homeless! Truly bizarre is this new USA” low standards or no standards!” I am happy to see Bernie Sanders challenge these GOP Presidential contenders and challenge Ms. Clinton as well! Thank you for giving me a chance to state my thoughts publicly.

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/30/2015 - 09:48 am.

    Yeah but…

    How can a guy answer: “yes” to all those questions and then deny your campaign is cartoonish? And Carson’s numbers really don’t ad up, and increasing the tax rate on a flat tax scheme doesn’t work out.

    What are the “moderators” supposed to do? Enter the republican fantasy world and ask them how many ferries they think can sit on the head of a pin? If these people can’t handle these moderators what makes them think they can handle congress? Trump spent weeks complaining about FOX after the first debate… whatever.

    It’s not the “media’s” fault that republican showed up with 17 candidates. How do you organize a “debate” between that many people? It’s bound to be a circus no matter what you do. Meantime someone has challenge all these daffy proposals so I don’t have a problem with these questions.

    Sure there’s a difference between the republican and democratic debates… there’s a huge difference between the candidates.

  15. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 11/02/2015 - 02:49 pm.

    And in the meantime…

    In the weeks between each debate these folks go at each other on every possible issue: relevant or not. When we get to the debate they all are deeply offended when they are asked essentially about things they said the previous week. Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley do not engage in anything close to this frequency of personnel attack and mostly engage on the issues. So both parties candidate are primarily questioned on the things they said in the previous week or two: It’s just the R’s fill the air with ridiculous crap that they are subsequently deeply offended when asked about it and accuse the D’s of getting softball issue specific questions. You get what you give….

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