As someone who avidly follows politics and financial news, someone who throws debate watch parties, I was really looking forward to the CNBC Republican Debate which took place on October 28, 2015 at The University of Colorado at Boulder. Unfortunately, the debate which had been billed as focusing on the economy turned into a free for all filled with anti-Republican rhetoric. The three moderators John Harwood, Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla completely mismanaged the forum. Their collective ineptitude, including asking the ten candidates mean-spirited questions, interrupting and talking over the candidates, caused them to completely lose control of the conversation that they were tasked with moderating. The trio’s badgering and patronizing of the candidates was so blatant that their performance was universally panned. Even liberal journalists thought the debate was unfair.
The debate’s opening question was supposed to be about economic or financial matters. Instead, moderator Carl Quintanilla asked the candidates, “In 30 seconds, without telling us that you tried too hard or that you’re a perfectionist, what is your biggest weakness and what are you doing to address it?” The responses to this “job interview” question were as useless as the question which spawned them such as “Jeb Bush’s biggest weakness is he can’t fake anger” or “Marco Rubio’s biggest weakness is that he’s an optimist”. What is the point of questions like this? Is the question intended to elicit information or to put the responder on the defensive? How does a question like this address the economic concerns of the American people?
While candidates for the presidency are expected to be prepared to answer tough questions, the evening’s line of questioning was hostile in tone and delivered in a manner which was demeaning to the candidates standing on the dais, starting with moderator John Harwood’s first question to real-estate magnate Donald Trump. After citing some of Trump’s policy proposals, Harwood said “Let’s be honest. Is this a comic-book version of a presidential campaign?” And the evening just went downhill from there. Ironically the conduct of the moderators had the end result of the candidates bonding together to defend each other. One of the evening’s memorable moments occurred when Senator Ted Cruz responded to a question about national debt by saying “This is not a cage match,” Cruz said. “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?”
Following the debate, Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus took to twitter to lambast CNBC. “CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled, #GOPDebate,” he wrote. “In spite of the moderators, I’m proud of our team for standing up against the improper and unprofessional display put on by CNBC,” he tweeted. On Friday October 30, Priebus officially pulled out of the upcoming Feb 26 debate on NBC News. CNBC is an NBC Universal property. In his letter to NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack, he cited CNBC’s “handling of the debate in bad faith” as the reason for severing the partnership with NBC News and its media properties. The Chairman admonished CNBC for failing to deliver the debate which was promised, one which would focus on “the key issues that matter to all voters—job growth, taxes, technology, retirement and the health of our national economy” and instead delivered a forum filled with “gotcha questions” which were “designed to embarrass our candidates”.
Consequently the CNBC Debate has sparked a conversation regarding the selection of moderators. Speaking at Iowa GOP’s Growth and Opportunity Party in Des Moines, Ted Cruz commented that the CNBC moderators were “left wing operatives” who were trying to weaken Republican presidential candidates. Cruz proposed that future Republican debates be hosted by moderators who have voted in the Republican primary once in their lives. The idea behind this is that the moderators would be providing a debate which would help conservatives decide “who’s going to be the best and strongest conservative to represent [conservatives] and win” in the primary election. Cruz further suggested that the debate be hosted by conservative journalists and radio hosts such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin.
Senator Cruz has made a valid point. The purpose of a primary debate is to provide a forum for the candidates of a particular party to demonstrate their ability to be the representative of the party’s people. This means that the debate should include questions which allow the candidates to demonstrate how they will uphold the principles of the party and also tackle the issues that the party’s voters care about. The Primary Debate is also supposed to be a vehicle for the candidates to showcase their capabilities and make their case to the American people that they would be the right choice to run against the opposing party candidate in the general election. So with regard to Republicans, if the moderators who are being selected have an inherent bias to the left, their participation in the debates is doing a disservice to the primary candidates and ultimately the American voters.
The CNBC Republican Debate is a wakeup call and a reminder that checks and balances need to be implemented to protect the presidential candidates and the American people from media bias. Furthermore, organizations such as CNBC need to be admonished for their blatant bias. And the best way to do this is to hit their bottom line. The RNC’s severing its relationship with NBC was a good first step, but it is not enough. A year from now, the American people will elect their next president, we deserve informative, substantive candidate debates where the candidates are asked tough questions but are treated with respect.