When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one television news organization to moderate a presidential debate—even just in the Republican primary—and to assume among the powers of the earth the station that the Republican National Committee and Various Twitterati entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of humankind requires that they should prepare before the cameras start rolling, for at least like, five minutes.
CNBC was lacking a decent respect to the opinions of humankind, and they were also apparently lacking a handy copy of “Debate Moderation For Dummies,” and the result was a contentious, sloppy, two-hour debate that covered a lot of ground but didn’t say anything. The moderators had some ideas, but very little control over the debate, which spun out of control from cacophonous to complete disarray faster than you can say “hamburger prices.”
To be sure, I sympathize. These are not candidates that make questioning them easy, and because there are still so many, moderating the GOP primary debate is more like a cattle roundup than a reasonable discussion—everyone on stage is determined to go in their own direction, and it takes a lot of corralling to get them to adhere to some guidelines. No such corralling occurred at the Coors Events Center at University of Colorado Boulder. Despite the rules of the debate being extremely obvious, every candidate either flouted the rules or ignored them. The moderators seemed to have no notion that questioning a pack of Republican candidates would be difficult; repeatedly, they lacked material to back up their assertions. So when the candidates avoided questions—or lied—they bizarrely had no recourse. This was most pronounced when moderator Becky Quick asked Donald Trump about his remarks calling Senator Marco Rubio “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator,” and Trump declared that he had not done it. As everyone immediately pointed out, the phrase is literally on Trump’s campaign website, in his position paper on immigration. The domain name for the website is donaldjtrump.com; and if you had even perfunctorily Googled “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator” at 9:30 p.m., this would have been your results page. Quick, to her credit, did follow up after a commercial break, but that was where the moderators’ other weaknesses were visible—Trump skated right over the complete reversal, without even a twinge of conscience. Either he didn’t even know that was part of his policy, or he completely didn’t care that he’d been called out, and Quick lacked the wherewithal to pursue the thread. Perhaps we should applaud the moderators for coming into a event where they knew they’d have to question Donald Trump with such rosy-eyed optimism; it was almost as if they didn’t know he was a blustering, slippery liar.
But it wasn’t just the debate prep—the network’s entire setup for this debate was flawed, demonstrating from the outset a baffling lack of respect for the non-wonk, non-media, non-regular CNBC-viewing audience. Viewers who tuned in at 8 p.m. were treated to the most obnoxious pre-debate panel in history, without any acknowledgment of the fact that the debate was (inexplicably) running late. Meanwhile the panel talked over each other incessantly, circling through the same tired points of analysis that had lost all value. And even though this was a Republican debate, the commentary was breathtakingly conservative, without even a hint of concern about how a broader audience might take the discussion. Even as the candidates began to line up on stage, they kept going and going; I cannot fathom how many viewers switched over to CNBC, saw a woman saying something very emphatic about the University of Colorado, and switched back to the World Series, because hey, maybe the debate was canceled or something.
Furthermore, the three-moderator setup made it that much harder to nail down control of the candidates. Anderson Cooper, at the Democratic primary debates a few weeks ago, had the entire event under control from start to finish—and at least in part that was because it was just him, and no one else, who was managing when and how candidates spoke. Quick and her co-moderators Carlos Quintanilla and John Harwood never quite found a rhythm with each other, and from the get-go the candidates were there to fight. The overlapping dialogue of the pre-show segued directly into overlapping dialogue between people who are running for president and people who were supposed to ask them questions about it; that battle of egos alone would be enough to turn anyone off politics for the rest of this election cycle.
But the biggest problem that CNBC made was in expecting this debate to be a real debate. As I discovered while watching, the audience in that room featured just a few dozen UC Boulder students and yet only filled the 11,000-seat auditorium to just a tenth of its capacity. Say what you will about logistics, but that audience was hand-picked by someone—and as the night wore on, they revealed themselves to be raucous and truth-averse. The live audience at the debates last night repeatedly booed the moderators and cheered, more than once, the candidates’ baldfaced lies. It created a situation where the candidates were at times outright yelling at the moderators (Trump, of course, yelling at Harwood) as they jockeyed for attention and went through their talking points. What happened here?
The answer lies in this early fact-checking flub. Moderator Quintanilla asked Ben Carson about his connection with Mannatech, a medical supplement maker accused of false advertising. Carson denied a connection, calling the question “total propaganda.” This seemed to catch Quintanilla flat-footed, but he observed that Carson can be seen in a photo on Mannatech’s website, with the company’s logo over his shoulder. Where did that come from, if not endorsement of the product? “If somebody put me on their homepage, they did it without my permission,” Carson responded. Quintanilla tried to go further, somewhat ineptly—he did not say, as he could have, “The Wall Street Journal unearthed a video where you are vouching for this product; what is that, if not a connection or endorsement of Mannatech?” But he does ask whether or not Carson’s appearance in the ads demonstrates poor judgment. Before Carson can even get anywhere, the audience boos Quintanilla—which is all Carson needed to smile and ignore the question.
In the last few hours, as I’ve been writing this, I’ve been wondering about that booing. What is the crowd upset about? Do they think it’s unfair to ask Carson if he’s fit for the presidency? Or do they firmly believe that he’s blameless about Mannatech? It’s understandable that Carson has vocal supporters in the audience, but Carson wasn’t debating Quintanilla—he’s debating Trump, and Marco Rubio, and Carly Fiorina, and a half-dozen other people. And yet the audience responds as if the real enemy here is one of three people trying to add depth and substance to the debate.
CNBC could have been prepared as if for the Nuremberg trials and it still wouldn’t have been enough; the crowd wasn’t interested in the truth. And though all the candidates know that to some degree, last night was Marco Rubio’s night to shine as a manipulator of the conservative media entertainment complex—that particular doublespeak that rails against the mainstream media while dominating it with tortured logic and dog-whistling. Carson calls Quintanilla’s perfectly legitimate question “propaganda.” Trump tells a story about how the debate was formed, and Harwood states unequivocally that the story is not true. So Trump—like a growling mastiff—shouts Harwood down and literally postures in a show of bullying strength. Governors Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee address the viewing audience with the implied nudge-and-wink that indicates they are addressing just certain demographics of the viewing audience. And Marco Rubio, in the particular pandering smarm that he has perfected over the years in Florida, first insists Harwood has his numbers wrong and then admits that “numerically,” Harwood is right, but something-something, defeat Hillary, reverse Obama’s policies, and never, ever, raise taxes. And the live audience at the Coors Events Center ate it up. This wasn’t a debate—because the audience didn’t want a debate, so CNBC didn’t prepare for one. Instead we got two more hours of loud discussion that is so far removed from what this country really needs or wants that it might as well be on the next planet over. This wasn’t a debate, this was a circus. And we are the clowns.