The Internet is wrong about CNBC’s controversial Republican debate

It was the best one yet.

Feb 29, 2020, 4:59 pm*

Internet Culture

Gillian Branstetter 

Gillian Branstetter

Marco Rubio's NRA Connections Criticized Following Florida Shooting

Marc Nozell/Flickr | Remix by Max Fleishman (CC-BY)

In the opening of this week’s GOP debate, former Ohio governor John Kasich came out swinging. After CNBC moderator John Harwood questioned Donald Trump about his “big, beautiful wall” and Ben Carson’s much-criticized flat tax plan, Kasich called out the “fantasy” of the two men who lead in primary polls across the country. “You know, these plans would put us trillions and trillions of dollars in debt,” Kasich said, a claim that has the benefit of being true. “This stuff is fantasy.”

The CNBC moderators treated the proposals of Trump and Carson just as Kasich did, challenging the feasibility of Carson’s “tithing” plan and referring to Trump’s bid for the White House as “a comic book version of a presidential campaign.” In fact, the CNBC debate saw some of the hardest grilling yet of any of the candidates. Moderators Harwood, Becky Quick, and Carl Quintanilla posed specific, fact-based questions to each candidate, challenging them on a wide variety of issues for which few candidates could have ever prepared. 

If we don’t want a media that acts a mouthpiece for the absurdity of modern-day electioneering—the “fantasy” to which Kasich refers—the moderators of this week’s debate showed their colleagues how it’s done.

For their hard work, the trio of moderators were predictably pilloried by the Internet—as well as the candidates on stage. Both Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) and Ted Cruz interrupted the debate to pick fights with Harwood for his line of questioning. A spokesman for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said CNBC did a “horrendous job and a disservice.” Jeb Bush campaign manager Danny Diaz supposedly got into a “heated confrontation” with a CNBC producer before the debate was even over. 

Chairman of the Republican National Committee Reince Priebus attacked the network on Twitter, and the conservative response across social media was just as hostile.

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Their complaints reveal the errors of the current system of presidential debates—as well as how well CNBC subverted them. “This is not a cage match.” Ted Cruz told Harwood at the debate, pointing particularly to the questioning of Trump and Carson. “How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?”

While Cruz received huge applause from the audience, Cruz and others are mistaken to believe the moderators were trying to engineer conflict between the candidates. In fact, that was very much the goal of last month’s CNN debate, in which Jake Tapper spent much of his airtime pointing out what one candidate had said about another, instead of challenging them on policy. 

If we don’t want a media that acts a mouthpiece for the absurdity of modern-day electioneering, the moderators of this week’s debate showed their colleagues how it’s done.

The CNN debate was called “an utter failure” by Slate’s Justin Peters—who cited the first GOP debate, hosted by Fox News, for asking “sharp questions that made the candidates uncomfortable, just as they should have.“ Peters continued, “CNN, by contrast, seemed determined to encourage the candidates to make ?each other? feel uncomfortable.”

Despite Republican claims to the contrary, CNBC looked a lot more like Fox News than CNN. Instead of asking Trump about his rap sheet of disparaging comments about other candidates, Harwood challenged the $8 trillion his tax plan would add to the deficit. Instead of focusing on Ben Carson’s many ludicrous statements, the network forced him to explain the math behind his own tax plan. 

When Carl Quintanilla asked Sen. Marco Rubio about his voting record (or lack thereof) while running for president, it was Jeb Bush—not the network—who turned the moment tried to turn the issue into a shouting match (before it backfired on him).

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CNBC ran a solid debate that forced every candidate on stage off their comfort ground of rehearsed answers and into strange territory that Americans do actually care about—including the hard questions they’ll have to face as president. Former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina was asked about federal involvement in 401(k) plans. Ben Carson had to answer for his relationship with Mannatech, a fraudulent pharmaceutical company. And yes, Jeb Bush was asked whether the government should be regulating fantasy sports.

While I certainly have my complaints about a debate that focuses more on regulating fantasy sports than Wall Street, CNBC provided a wide array of issues while distinctly avoiding the personality politics Cruz and others accused it of playing. 

CNBC ran a solid debate that forced every candidate on stage off their comfort ground of rehearsed answers and into strange territory that Americans do actually care about.

While Donald Trump ruled the clock at the last two debates by interrupting and insulting others, the CNBC debate saw not only a more diminished Trump but a stronger dependency on substantive candidates like Fiorina, Rubio, and Kasich—who had the first, second, and third most speaking time, respectively. Ben Carson, for his recent polling surge in Iowa, spoke less than all but one candidate—Jeb Bush, who recently admitted that he’d rather be doing other things than running for president.

And this is in the face of a debate structure that is designed to award the loudest and most conflict-hungry among them. Calling these monthly group therapy sessions “debates” is farcical. In the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald once wrote, “The media’s role is to keep the discourse as restrictive and unthreatening as possible, while peddling the delusion that it’s all vibrant and free and independent and unrestrained.” 

Candidates should not walk away from any debate feeling exuberant and proud, as Trump had done from each GOP debate before this one and Hillary Clinton did after the first Democratic contest. Debates should be very difficult, and candidates should hate having to do them.

By every measure, the criticism of CNBC is simply an example of a well-exercised muscle within the GOP to reflexively attack the media when in trouble. As famed pollster Frank Luntz pointed out, Ted Cruz netted his highest ratings among focus groups when he lashed out at the moderators. People don’t want to see their favorite candidate challenged any more than they want their own ideology contested. 

By making the candidates uncomfortable, the CNBC moderators should be praised for raising the standard of debates—towards substantive discussion and away giving politicians one more way to lie to us. 

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

Photo via Marc Nozell/Flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Oct 29, 2015, 3:26 pm