Clown Car 3: The Moderators Strike Back (The CNBC GOP Debate in Synopsis)

The third Republican Party debate of 2015 (titled with an astonishing lack of irony, “Your Money, Your Vote“), moderated and broadcast by CNBC on Wednesday, October 28, 2015, and hosted by the University of Colorado, proved to be very predictable in most respects, but also played to the modern television audience through elements of drama and confrontationalism. The moderators (John Harwood, Becky Quick, and Carl Quintanilla) get the credit or blame for the content of the questions, for the environment of the debate, and for keeping the candidates on track. While conservatives may applaud their candidates for continuing their basic platitudes, and liberals may denigrate them for the same reason, the audience of the debate also must consider the job of the moderators in getting the candidates to answer tough, relevant, and expository questions, fulfilling the role of the debates (as one of the moderators noted) as the candidates’ “job interview.” After this “interview,” there was a substantial (admittedly mostly conservative) backlash against CNBC for failing in their part of the process. The candidates failed to speak much on relevant issues, but the moderators failed to ask the right questions and failed to earn the candidates’ cooperation.

The debate began with a “job interview” question, asking the candidates to describe their greatest weakness. The candidates, used to beginning with opening statements (omitted from this debate), generally refused to even acknowledge the question, and used the time to make opening statements. Trump was then asked about his “comic-book candidacy,” to which he responded with predictable indignation, but he also reiterated his baseless platitudes about building a “wall” and getting Mexico to pay for it. Carson and Cruz both said little about their similar flat tax plans (and Rubio would also later get into a fierce argument with Harwood over criticisms of his plan), while Fiorina argued for a simplified plan (reducing the tax code from her alleged 73,000 pages to three pages). Kasich argued that both Carson’s and Trump’s tax plans in particular were unrealistic and irresponsible, and would explode the budget deficit. As the moderators interrupted the candidates, ran over other candidates’ own interruptions and responses, and denied the veracity of the candidates’ claims and statements, Cruz criticized the moderators for asking tough questions, but also for ignoring substantive issues, and for attempting to incite fighting between the candidates (especially between Bush and Trump, Huckabee and Christie, etc.).

After the first commercial break, the debate environment settled down a little, with less open interruption and confrontation by the moderators, but still aggressive questioning. However, through the rest of the debate, the moderators asked the candidates more about their personal differences and disagreements, and about minutia of their views and statements, while avoiding completely major current issues such as gun control, education reform, banking reform, foreign affairs and national security, police culture and law enforcement (and incarceration) issues, etc. Carson, Trump, and Fiorina were questioned about their personal business interests and failures. Fiorina used the moment to blame government for all social and economic problems. She steadfastly refused to acknowledge that failures, weaknesses, corruption, and concentration of wealth create problems in the corporate sector. Cruz, in answering (or avoiding) a question on working women’s issues, focused solely on “single mothers,” thereby ignoring the possibility that single career women without children (or with adult children) and married women might also be a part of the labor force worth considering. He and Fiorina, to the surprise of no one, both blamed women’s poverty on the Democrats, and also unsurprisingly failed to cite any facts or argument behind their assertions.

Trump was asked about the rights of his employees to come to work armed, and about whether he himself carried, rather than about gun control or rights as a national issue. He played to his base in responding that he “sometimes” carries, just to be unpredictable. Christie claimed Obama does not support the police; and of course he did not bother to cite any actual examples, let alone facts. As the topic moved to retirement, with only modest mentions of Social Security (notwithstanding some mutual sniping between Huckabee and Christie), Fiorina predictably called for the government to get out of the retirement business.

In the final segment of the debate, as the topic moved to Medicare, Huckabee said, “We don’t have a health care crisis, we have a health crisis.” He claimed that only a few maladies, particularly cancer and Alzheimer’s, cause most of the spending on Medicare, and that the solution to funding Medicare (or defunding it) would be “simply” to cure these maladies (ignoring the fact that medical science has been working towards those goals, and that we do not yet have a road map toward those objectives).

A major dramatic moment occurred when Jeb Bush was asked about whether fantasy football constitutes gambling, and if such ramifications necessitated a greater role for the federal government. While Bush shrugged the question aside (admitting to participating himself and bragging about the success of his team), Christie exploded about the pettiness of the moderators in ignoring substantive issues and asking about a stupid issue like federal involvement in fantasy football. Christie also called John Harwood (and the panel in general) rude even by New Jersey standards, particularly when Harwood interrupted one of Christie’s responses on climate change (one of the few moments substantive issues were even brought up).

Ultimately none of the candidates either were asked, or found the moment, to present their “vision” of America and the federal government, beyond simple soundbites like Fiorino’s vapid antifederalism and Trump’s childish and unelaborated “I will do so much better.” Rand Paul had few moments worth remembering, Kasich played the reasonable Republican criticizing his colleagues’ unreasonable and irresponsible approaches, Bush played up his affability (aside from criticizing Rubio’s absenteeism), Rubio attacked the Florida press for also criticizing him for not doing his job, Carson remained quiet and sleepy and devoid of actual facts and arguments, Christie played up his aggressive New Jersey attitude, and Huckabee echoed Jim Webb’s complaints at the Democratic debate about not getting a fair share of mic time.

After the debate, the conservative press (and the RNC) lambasted CNBC for the confrontationalism and for preferring the incitement of infighting to a greater conversation about substance. As the third debate of the “clown car,” little else could really have been expected. The GOP has yet to whittle its candidate army down to a few likely leaders, and until it does, substance is effectively beyond the expectations of a two-hour debate with commercials. While the “clown car” makes for entertaining television, it minimizes the possibilities of substantive debate and fuller policy proposals. As the Democrats have already culled their candidates to two likelies and one not so much, America awaits the conservatives’ response to the constraints of their own selection process.

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