They all fear real questions. Problem is, a gutless media isn't asking them

The Republicans wage war on a straw man: Our political debates are frozen, and so is our democracy

Published November 3, 2015 4:24PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Rick Wilking)
(Reuters/Rick Wilking)

If you made a conscious decision to miss the Republican presidential debate, congratulations, you made the right call.

A point worth pondering isn’t how this debate was worse than all the others but how it was like them. I don’t just mean other 2016 presidential debates. I mean all recent political debate. We face hard choices we don’t know how to discuss, let alone make. This incapacity threatens our survival as much as the cancer of corruption consuming the body politic, so we must talk about it even if it means reliving Wednesday’s unpleasantness.

Republicans accuse CNBC of bias and bad behavior. Reading the transcript one is struck by the deference of most questions and the weakness of the follow-ups. John Harwood was snarky. So was Becky Quick, though less egregiously and less often. But no panelist was as rude to the candidates as the candidates were to one another. The candidates were even ruder to the panel, but Republicans don’t think reporters deserve respect. Whenever a candidate abused a reporter, everybody cheered.

The tone was set at the opening bell. Asked to cite a weakness, John Kasich said it was a great question, but not one he planned on answering. He instead attacked Carson and Trump, saying the party was “on the verge perhaps of picking someone who can’t do the job.” Naturally, Trump returned fire with a howitzer:

He was such a nice guy... but then his poll numbers tanked… that is why he is on the end… and he got nasty... nasty... So you know what? You can have him.

Trump takes the Republican war on courtesy to new heights. Some say he’s toned it down since the long ago days (of last summer) when he mocked John McCain’s valor and suggested Megyn Kelly might have been menstruating during the first GOP debate. But last week he mocked Jeb Bush for asking “Mommy and Daddy” to help him out and sneered at Ben Carson’s religion. After Trump, Chris Christie may be the second rudest man in America. Videos of his bullying are all over the Web. Ted Cruz compared Republicans wary of shutting down the government to Neville Chamberlain. Ben Carson compared the IRS to the Nazis themselves, and Obamacare to slavery.

Wednesday we witnessed the farce of Trump, Christie, Carson and Cruz whining that CNBC was rude to them. By "CNBC" they must mean John Harwood. Save for a single question posed by Rebecca Quick to Marco Rubio on the tender topic of Rubio’s personal finances, no other panelist said one word a reasonable person would deem rude. Carl Quintanilla pitched softballs. Jim Cramer and Rick Santelli asked questions the candidates’ staffs could have submitted:

Cramer: As a former prosecutor, do you believe the people responsible for the (GM) switch and the cover-up belong behind bars?

Christie: You bet they do.

Santelli: Senator Cruz… You've been a fierce critic of the Fed, arguing for more transparency. Where do you want to take that?

Cruz: Well, Rick, it's a very important question. I have got deep concerns about the Fed. The first thing I think we need to do is audit the Fed…. (etc.)

Oddly enough, the debate rarely touched on the performance or management of the economy; so when Republicans charge bias they mean the panelists showed it just by asking tough questions. Republicans do this a lot; after the first debate Trump declared war on Fox News. Harwood’s tone bespoke elitism, not liberalism. To Roger Ailes, George Will, Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer liberalism and elitism mean the same thing, but here’s a fun fact: They hate Trump too.

The whole conservative establishment thinks Trump’s running, as Harwood put it, “a comic book version of a presidential campaign.” Harwood wasn’t nearly as hard on him as they are, but he still came off as a snob. After his first grenade blew up in his lap he went after Trump on taxes, citing the Tax Foundation without deigning to tell anyone what it is. He buttressed his case with this timely validation:

I talked to economic advisers (to) presidents of both parties. They said you have as much chance of cutting taxes that much without increasing the deficit as you would of flying away from that podium by flapping your arms.

Harwood overestimates our respect for our recent presidents’ economic advisers. He also forgot that CNBC’s own Larry Kudlow endorsed Trump’s dumb plan. Harwood may think Kudlow a bloviating ignoramus, but since they work together—Kudlow was also on air that night—he could hardly say so.

All night it seemed no one was in charge. The candidates behaved like a high school class with a new substitute teacher -- shouting over one another, speaking without being called on. They’d beg for extra time to finish a point; a panelist would refuse, then cave, then sit mute as they took off on some other topic. The chaos reflected the panel’s dearth of preparation and experience. A presidential debate is, or ought to be, the Mount Olympus of public discourse. The journalists should be the most politically experienced, substantively knowledgeable a sponsor can enlist. Quick’s CNBC profile indicates no political experience at all. It showed.

Her first question was to Ben Carson and it was on taxes. Carson’s policies are a stew of ignorance and bald ideology. He’s just now repointing them; he’d no longer abolish Medicare outright; his tax plan goes slightly beyond the 10 percent tithing model of his church. Like Trump, confronted with inconvenient past statements he denies making them and accuses his questioner of bias. His Sméagol veneer cracks and a Gollum-like double hisses about thought police out to destroy not just him, but all that’s good about America. The right eats this stuff up with a spoon.

To interview Carson you must come armed with facts. But Quick’s grasp of the material was no better than his, so it was all she said/he said. She said he couldn’t balance the budget with a 10 percent tax rate. He said the rate would be closer to 15 percent. She said it still won’t work. He said he’d get rid of “all the deductions and loopholes.” She said he’d have to cut spending 40 percent. He said, “That’s not true.” She said, “That is true. I looked up the numbers.” He said, “When we put all the facts down you’ll be able to see that it is true.” She said, “Dr. Carson, thank you.”

The low point of Quick’s evening came against Trump in questions regarding his prior statements on H1B visas. Their first exchange:

QUICK:  You have been very critical of Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook who has wanted to increase the number of these H1Bs.

TRUMP: I was not at all critical of him.…

QUICK: Where did I read this and come up with this...

TRUMP:  I don't know -- you people write the stuff…

QUICK: …maybe you had talked a little bit about Marco Rubio. I think you called him Mark Zuckerberg's personal senator…

TRUMP: I never said that….

QUICK: So this was an erroneous article the whole way around? My apologies. I'm sorry.

Eventually someone got word to Quick that the quotes came from Trump’s own website. Many minutes later she blandly informed him of it and inquired again as to his position, which he again fudged. In the midst of the ruckus he blurted out a stale lie: “I am the only person in this campaign that’s self-funding. I’m putting up 100 percent of my own money.” It’s not even close to true. Trump has raised $5.8 million; $3.8 million of it from donors. Of the $1.9 million he ponied up, all but $100,000 was a loan, which suggests he plans to recoup his investment. As with everything he says about his finances, to believe him you have to really want to.

To summarize: Trump lied about attacking Rubio, then lied about his finances. Then Quick apologized to him, then he accused her of being rude. It happened all night long: A candidate would lie; a moderator would thank him for it. Lack of preparation was part of the problem but not the only part. The larger culprit is the worldview of the network’s top employees, and it isn’t liberalism.

If "pay to play" politics and global finance capitalism are our real problem, you won’t find out from a question posed by a network television employee. Few ever question the soundness of the economic system; in fact most treat those who do as naive. That means we can all look forward to more debate of two utterly disproven theories: the conservative faith that we can solve all our problems with tax cuts and the liberal faith that we can solve them all with social programs. Neither would really solve any problem, though liberal policies would ameliorate some of them while current conservative policies would make them all much worse.

The political correlative to this "centrist" economic view is that the democracy is also basically sound. It’s why Obama thought he could “change Washington’s culture” without reforming its institutions and why we dream of the perfect leader when it’s clear FDR, LBJ, Sam Rayburn and Tip O’Neill together couldn’t make this horse go. It’s how elections get reduced to the politics of biography and why most coverage of them reads like a racing sheet; all polling and financial numbers with dollops of gossip mixed in. Both serve the status quo in that neither lends itself to the kind of talk that turns easily to reform. They also serve candidates and consultants who treat issues merely as land mines they must not step on.

One debate lesson pertains to the politics of biography. Marco Rubio is a master of the form but it seems every candidate turns every answer into a hokey tale of his or his parents’ childhood. For Trump, Carson and Fiorina, their life stories are their platforms. We have a right, a duty, even, to cross-examine them, with candor, civility, concreteness and specificity. But as we saw Wednesday, it’s risky business. A questioner must explain the reason for the query and never appear to prejudge. (Why should we believe you? Does he have the moral authority? Do you have the wisdom?) If we think a candidate’s running a comic book campaign, we must prove it, not say it, or risk ending up cartoon characters ourselves.

Wednesday had moments that begged for the kind of debate we need and deserve. Responding to a climate change question Chris Christie bragged that New Jersey trails only California and Arizona in solar energy production and explained why:

We work with the private sector to make solar energy affordable…that is the way we deal with global warming… not through government intervention…  don't send Washington another dime until they stop wasting the money we're already sending there.

When John Harwood tried vainly to ask whether any of this involved the government Christie beat him back with a stick

Do you want me to answer or do you want to answer…even in New Jersey what you're doing is called rude.

Harwood was just doing his job, and if Christie knows anything about solar energy in his state he was lying through his teeth. Solar does well there due to mandates and subsidies put in place by his Democratic predecessors. Harwood should have known it and should have pressed him on the point: Can the private sector stop global warming or will it take new laws and public subsidies? Any fool knows the answer, but Christie’s not just any fool.

Over the weekend representatives met in Washington to consider changing the rules of debate. Ideas under discussion include the exclusion of reporters deemed hostile to them, fewer actual questions and more time for candidates to wax eloquent about their "visions." It’s a brazen assault on democracy and the free press, but the base will love it. The Democrats' own stifling of debate leaves them poorly positioned and the Republicans’ gangster style has the press so intimidated they could even get away with it. We need more and better debate, but few in power are inclined to offer or demand it.

The CNBC debate never got close to what ails our economy. As I tell education reformers who are out to turn our children into better worker bees, it’s our democracy that’s broken, not our economy. If Congress had stayed out of Iraq, done a public option, raised the minimum wage, modernized public transit and led a transition to renewable energy -- then the economy would be going gangbusters. Pass a few reforms and the middle class could even see some dough. We’re good workers. We need to be better citizens. And we need a better debate. It’s where good choices begin.

GOP Candidates Battle Over Debate Demands

By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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