CNBC Debate Moderators Are Who We Thought They Were
Ben Domenech
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Sorry, Reince. We tried to tell you.

Following last night’s CNBC debate, Reince Priebus immediately went into defense mode. I honestly view his statement here as sincere and ticked off, as irritated as a Midwesterner can be, when it comes to CNBC’s performance. The fact is that they just made him look bad – very bad. Reince had promised a different process this time around, a different debate experience – no more Wild Wild West, more questioners from conservative media, an orderly and responsible series of debates covering foreign policy, the economy, and other issues in a thorough manner. The first two debates were a bit too gotcha, a bit less serious than we would like. But they were nothing like the total unmitigated disaster we saw last night.

This was worse than any debate I’ve seen in my lifetime. A primary reason for that was John Harwood, whose combative but vacuous style led to unserious questions and putting the debaters in a position of opposition to the moderators as opposed to opposition among themselves. Sonny Bunch ranks the moderators here, and unlike most Bunch rankings, I think he’s pretty accurate. At the end of the day we had an economic debate in which there were no questions about Wall Street regulation, no questions about Too Big to Fail, no questions about Trade, and instead a series of attacks from moderators who failed factchecks in real time and ultimately were booed by the entire room for their pathetic gotcha attempts. Why did CNBC have no conservative media partner? Why was the presence of a “conservative” voice limited to Rick Santelli asking questions about Gold and the Fed (who is not, actually, a conservative)? The economy is the biggest problem the next president faces, we have people like Ben Carson with a serious lack of depth on the issue, and you’re asking them questions about Costco’s policies toward gay couples and herbal supplements? What is wrong with you?

The headline from this debate is: it’s going to result in a change of process. The complaints are too loud and too broad. It’s one thing when yours truly, Hugh Hewitt, and Erick Erickson are complaining – when Larry Sabato, Stu Rothenberg, Anderson Cooper, Politico, and ThinkProgress are agreeing? Something will have to change. Reince will have to make a change. The demands are just too high to allow another Harwoodesque debate experience, no matter how much the wagons are circled. Byron York writes: “After a performance by CNBC moderators that Republicans characterized as both biased and inept, a manager for a top GOP campaign says he will try to organize other campaigns to force the Republican National Committee to make “wholesale change” in the debate process.” And they will, at least, attempt to do this.

One more point about this: it’s not the ideology that’s a problem, it’s faction. You could have an absolutely fair and interesting debate moderated by Chris Hayes, Ezra Klein, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Stephen Colbert, even if all are personally to the left of the moderators last night when it comes to policy. Why? Because none of them are in the faction of being giant hacks. The problem with last night’s moderators was not an ideological problem, it was a hack problem. Hacks ask questions like “are you a comic book version of a campaign” or “how was liquidating your retirement account indicative of your irresponsibility”, serious liberals ask questions like “tell me about how your Obamacare replacement has a possibility of working – no, really, tell me.” There is a difference, and it is not about bias. It is about a modicum of seriousness and respect and intelligence.

This morning John Harwood is still, STILL tweeting that he accurately cited Tax Foundation analysis of Marco Rubio’s tax plan after the head of the Tax Foundation said he didn’t. We’re not mad at moderators for being tough – we’re mad at them for being dumb. There’s a difference.

Presidential Candidates: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things?? Let’s Find Out!

So here are the candidate performances ranked, as I see it, in rough order:

TED CRUZ: He didn’t talk the most. But when he did, he dominated. He had the best moment of the night by far, not just in terms of the dials in Frank Luntz’s group but in the Facebook shares, in the reaction, and in the general agreement that this was a giant craptacular mess of a debate.

MARCO RUBIO: A very close second. His reaction to Jeb Bush’s (unwise, in my view) attack on his work ethic in the Senate was perfect. Rubio seems too rehearsed sometimes but the lines are very good. He is so dangerous as a candidate because he is fundamentally able to be a chameleon. He is a Huckabee-endorsing neoconservative who has learned to speak the language of movement conservatism, and he speaks it fluently.

BEN CARSON: Carson is leading in many polls in Iowa and he did nothing to squelch that lead. He handled the challengers deftly and made no real mistakes. If you are the leader, that is a standard of victory – and in a situation where it could have gone much worse in defending policy plans that are not really all that deep, he held on.

DONALD TRUMP: Reluctant as I am to give Trump credit, this was a very solid performance. He punched down again – this time at John Kasich instead of Rand Paul – but he handled nearly all of the questions well. His one down moment was when the CNBC moderator who looks like that girl from House figured out that her prior question was indeed based on a statement on his website about visas, but he of course just played the flim-flam game with it. Trump did well and more importantly did nothing to damage himself in the polls.

CARLY FIORINA: Really quite good and capable on stage. She interrupts in the most polite manner and can take over the conversation quickly. If debates were happening more regularly she would probably be in third behind Trump and Carson in every poll. Every gotcha that came at her, she was prepared for, and she had the best closing. Also: nice dark nails there, which people mocked me on Twitter for noticing. Fierce.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: A very solid if repetitive and sometimes bullying performance. Christie’s act wears thin the more that you hear it, but he got in some solid hits against the moderators and echoed a law and order message which Republicans tend to like in a time of rioting and crime, which concerns suburban voters. Christie could save his status for the debate two weeks from now considering he barely made this one.

MIKE HUCKABEE: He did well when he had zingers and less well when asked about policy. The Social Security/Medicare discussion went in odd directions and did not leave viewers with a clear idea of what was being debated. Huckabee’s presence on the debate stage as a throwback is cute and all, but the party would be better served by having virtually anyone else there. Could we trade for Jim Webb?

JEB BUSH: Whatever you think of his politics, Jeb Bush is inherently a good and decent man, and attacking others does not come easily to him. He had a bad moment in that interaction with Rubio – I do not think it was wise to attack on those grounds, nor do I think it was necessary. But I also think he rebounded after that attack, and had some better moments in the later part of the debate. His problem is that he is in the position now compared to Rubio that Hillary Clinton was compared to Barack Obama – when the younger more inspirational candidate became conceivable as an alternative, the money and energy flowed to them. Jeb will have to work hard to avoid that happening.

JOHN KASICH: Ahead of the final candidate because he got so much time to talk. Kasich talked an absurd amount, in the top three or four, and kept getting questioned tailored to him and designed to get him to criticize everyone else on stage. As the least conservative person there and the person likeliest to agree with the moderators’ critiques of the Republican Party, it’s obvious why. But he didn’t help himself that much with the time and Donald Trump stomped him like a bug. I doubt he sees any benefit.

RAND PAUL: I like Rand Paul. He is the closest of any of the candidates to my ideological views. But he seems so low key, so disengaged from this process, and so Senatorial in mindset that it’s just a question now of how long he stays in before it becomes obvious that he needs to head back. He has the mindset of a Senator, unlike Rubio, and it comes across that way. No shame in it – but as opposed to what it looked like a year ago when he and Chris Christie were going to duke it out over the future of the GOP, this is not his time.

Undercard debate: thought Graham and Jindal did well, Santorum and Pataki didn’t, no one cares, all is meaningless, BURMA-SHAVE.

Ben Domenech is the publisher of The Federalist. Sign up for a free trial of his daily newsletter, The Transom.

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