Saturday, October 31, 2015

GOP Debate: Bad Questions, Bad Answers

There has been a lot of commentary on the recent GOP presidential debate on CNBC. The Wheel doesn't usually do national politics, but we make an exception for this remarkable television show. First, let's look at the questions. Then, the answers. Then, the fallout.

The Questions

CNBC rightly deserves criticism both for its moderators and the questions they asked. John Harwood asked Donald Trump if he were running a comic book version of a campaign. Trump is doing just that, of course, but a skilled debate moderator should get the candidate himself to reveal how cartoonish his campaign is, not make it the premise of a question. Trump defended himself by citing Larry Kudlow as an expert in favor of Trump's tax plan, which highlights another CNBC fault. Kudlow happened to be one of the CNBC panelists. (He's also a charlatan and crank.) Two other questioners were Rick Santelli (who inspired the tea party movement with an on-air rant in 2009) and Jim Cramer (who encouraged his viewers "to buy stock in Bear Stearns just days before it collapsed"). You can't find a more sympathetic trio for the right-wing GOP outside of Fox News. Yet the irony seemed to be lost on everyone as one after another of the GOP candidates lambasted the "mainstream media" for being biased.

Other questions suffered similarly. John Kasich was invited to repeat his charge that the policy ideas of Trump and Ben Carson are crazy. Mike Huckabee was asked if Trump has the moral authority to be president. Skilled questioners ask open-ended questions that give candidates the opportunity to attack each other. Ham-handed questioners attack candidates themselves and ask the other candidates to agree. The CNBC debate featured too much of the latter.

The Answers

As deserving of criticism as CNBC is, the candidates themselves don't deserve to be let off the hook. What struck me most about the debate was how candidates have gotten more brazen in their lack of respect for the truth. It used to be that when a journalist asked a tough question about the candidate's past statements, the candidate would dance and weave, maybe even walk back his statements, trying to spin them into a more defensible position today. In the CNBC debate, the candidates were having none of that. They just flat out denied their past statements. Or their business connections. Or the math in their own tax plans. They blamed the questions. None of the candidates said, "You lie!", but they might as well have, no matter how easy it was going to be for fact-checkers to disprove the denials.

Donald Trump denied making a denigrating comment about Mark Zuckerberg and Marco Rubio. The comment was on his campaign website. You could look it up. But the audience didn't care.

Ben Carson denied being involved with snake oil company Mannatech, calling the charge propaganda. In fact, he made product endorsement videos for them. You could look it up. But the audience didn't care.

Ben Carson also denied that his tax plan calls for a 10% flat tax. He says it's 15%. In fact, he did propose 10% in the first debate (based on Biblical tithing, as he put it). You could look it up. But the audience didn't care.

Marco Rubio denied that his tax plan offers bigger tax breaks to people in the top 1% of income than to people with middle incomes. In fact, his plan's tax break for the top 1% is much more generous, in percentage terms, not just absolute dollars, than for the middle class. You could look it up. But the audience didn't care.

And so on. The moderators were repeatedly taken aback by the chutzpah of the candidates flat out denying what they are on record saying. And the audience sided lustily with the candidates.

The Fallout

The candidates were playing to the GOP base, which loved it. Ted Cruz, who lambasted the media, "won" the debate. You'd think the GOP would love how CNBC played the willing foil for them. But afterwards, several campaigns announced that they were meeting privately to change the formats of future debates. The Republican National Committee announced they were canceling their plans to let NBC host a future debate.

Maybe we'll eventually see what I thought was inevitable any way. The primary debates will take on the format of a reality show like American Idol, with contestants candidates appearing each week in front of a live studio audience, then viewers at home voting them off the stage, one by one, until at the end of sixteen weeks or whatever, one contestant is left. That's our American Idol nominee. He or she then goes out and loses to Hillary.

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