VOX – By Timothy B. Lee
Republicans fumed this week over what they saw as CNBC moderators’ biased and disrespectful treatment of the GOP presidential field at the candidates’ third debate Wednesday night. During the debate, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and other candidates blasted the moderators for their hostile questions, earning cheers from the mostly Republican audience.
On Friday, the Republican Party played its trump card: It threatened to cancel a Republican primary debate, hosted by NBC-owned Telemundo, that’s currently scheduled for February and let another media organization host the event instead. In a scathing letter, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus accused the moderators of engaging “in a series of ‘gotcha’ questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates.”
Not everyone agrees with these charges. Vox’s Ezra Klein, for example, argues that the moderators were just doing their jobs: “The problem for Republicans is that substantive questions about their policy proposals end up sounding like hostile attacks — but that’s because the policy proposals are ridiculous, not because the questions are actually unfair.”
But Republicans see things differently. In their view, the questions weren’t just tough but downright hostile. And they’re using their control over the Republican debate schedule to pressure NBC — and other mainstream media outlets hosting debates — to treat their candidates with more respect.
The GOP says the moderators were biased against Republican candidates
It’s the moderators’ job to ask tough but fair questions that will help to illuminate differences between the candidates and help voters decide which candidate to support. Conservative critics argue that in Wednesday night’s debate the moderators nailed the “tough” part, but they forgot about the fair part:
- Moderator John Harwood listed some of Donald Trump’s less plausible campaign positions — such as a plan to build a wall along the southern border and make Mexico pay for it — and then asked, “Let’s be honest. Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?”
- CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla mentioned that Marco Rubio had sponsored an immigration bill that “conservatives in your party hate and even you don’t support anymore,” and added, “Now you’re skipping more votes than any senator to run for president. Why not slow down, get a few more things done first, and at least finish what you start?”
- Addressing Jeb Bush, Harwood asserted, “The fact that you’re at the fifth lectern tonight shows how far your stock has fallen.” He continued: “Ben Bernanke said he no longer considers himself a Republican because the Republican Party has given into know-nothingism. Is that why you’re having a difficult time in this race?”
These questions don’t seem calculated to elicit thoughtful responses from the candidates so much as to telegraph the moderators’ disdain for the candidates or — in the case of the last question — the Republican party as a whole.
“The media works from the unspoken assumption that Democrats are normal while Republicans aren’t,” National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote after the debate. “Many mainstream media journalists think asking tough, even unfair, questions of Republicans is their job. They’re congratulated for it by the media critics and by Democratic activists who are often friends or even spouses of the reporters.”
While most of the complaints about the debate came from the political right, even some non-conservatives were put off by the moderators’ behavior. “CNBC showed us how to conduct a debate unburdened by a shred of respect,” late-night host Stephen Colbert said.
Attacking the moderators was a crowd-pleasing move at the debate
The candidates onstage didn’t appreciate the steady drumbeat of negativity from the moderators’ table, and a lot of Republican voters shared the sentiment. After all, most Republicans — who are, after all, the people the moderators are supposed to be serving — expect to vote for one of the candidates on stage. In recent weeks at least a quarter of voters have told pollsters they plan to vote for Donald Trump, suggesting that they don’t regard his campaign as cartoonish. The way the questions were framed seemed to confirm conservative suspicions that the moderators were hostile not only to particular candidates but to the conservative movement in general.
So the Republican candidates took every opportunity to hit back at the moderators. The most crowd-pleasing counterattack came from Ted Cruz, who lashed out at the string of one-sided questions he’d heard so far in the debate.
“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz said. “This is not a cage match. 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?”
Of course, these paraphrases aren’t quite accurate — Harwood suggested Trump was running a cartoonish campaign, not that he was a cartoon villain, for example — but the crowd roared its approval nonetheless.
Later, Harwood twice interrupted Chris Christie as he tried to answer a question about his stance on global warming. “I got to tell you the truth, even in New Jersey what you’re doing is called rude,” Christie shot back.