There was some pretty tough talk in the most recent Republican presidential debate; there always is. Donald Trump is still boasting about forcing Mexico to pay for a fairy tale wall. Chris Christie said if he wins the nomination Hillary Clinton won’t get within 10 miles of the White House. Even the mild-mannered Ben Carson said “PC” culture is “destroying this nation.”
But it wasn’t foreign countries or Democratic rivals who bore the brunt of most of the tough talk that came from the Republicans. By far their biggest targets were the men and women sitting right in front of them: the debate moderators, and the media as a whole.
To be fair, CNBC’s moderators did a terrible job with the debate. They seemed unprepared with facts when candidates baldly lied. In one striking example, Trump denied calling Marco Rubio “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator.” He did, in fact, say that, but CNBC reporter Becky Quick didn’t have the citation at hand and actually asked Trump to provide it. The moderators also were unable to decide who should get to respond and when; the debate often descended into a free-for-all. Nearly every answer was followed by a debate over who got to speak next.
But that wasn’t the candidates’ complaint. They were angry about the tough questions.
Those same tough candidates who want to run the country and dismantle Washington and change the way we do business and show the world who’s boss already can’t answer questions from the big bad media without whining like little children.
Donald Trump didn’t like being asked about the seriousness of his campaign, a question that cannot be asked enough. Chris Christie yelled at moderators for asking about regulating fantasy football, even though millions of Americans could be bilked by unsavory gambling operators. They asked Ben Carson why the numbers didn’t add up for his tax plan. They wanted John Kasich to confirm and defend substantive criticisms he made of the other candidates.
These weren’t the greatest questions ever posed, but they were legitimate questions people running for president should have been able to answer. The universal apoplexy from the candidates directed at the media in response to the debate wasn’t just unpresidential; it was weak. Ted Cruz sent an unhinged email to supporters Thursday thundering “I am declaring war on the liberal media.” Are we supposed to trust this guy with the nuclear codes?
The candidates wanted easier questions, but they refused to answer even the easy ones last night. Asked about their greatest weaknesses -- and urged not to go with the usual cop-outs -- they went with the usual cop-outs. “I try to live by the rules.” “I share a sense of optimism about America's future.” “I’m too trusting.” “I’m a fighter.”
But of course the complaints about the media aren’t really about getting easier questions at debates; they’re much more pernicious than that.
Republicans are working the refs. They don’t care what questions they’re asked; what they care about is destroying the credibility of anyone who might criticize their policies or their rhetoric. When Quick asked Carson about the $1.1 trillion in new deficits his tax plan would create, Carson simply replied “That’s not true” -- an assertion he could make confidently because he knows Republican primary audiences are much more likely to trust Ben Carson than a member of the media.
Of course his tax plan would be a disaster -- it would involve huge cuts for the richest Americans and drain the treasury, pushing America even deeper into debt. But facts, even obvious facts, don’t matter if you can convince people the arbiters of those facts are liars.
The biggest applause of the evening came for Ted Cruz, who (ignoring another question) went off on a long rant about the media. “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” he said. GOP pollster Frank Luntz said that line scored a 98 percent positive on his real-time focus group, the highest score he had ever seen.
That means as the election season goes on, you can expect more of the posturing, more questioning the media’s credibility, more outright bullying to get the media to play nice. The next Republican debate will take place on the Fox Business Network. What do you think the odds are that they’ll do a deep dive into the candidates’ tax plans after CNBC was raked over the coals?
Republicans running for the White House love to talk about Ronald Reagan; after all, according to their creation myth, his steely eyed toughness brought down the Soviet empire all on its own. Now try to imagine Reagan, who could be masterful in debates, complaining the questions he was getting were too tough for him to answer. This crop of candidates are falling far short of their hero.