The Republican debates have been a disaster for some candidates, a boon for others and an uninspiring spectacle for the nation to witness. But don’t blame it all on the moderators.
Not that the questioners are blameless, mind you. It’s true that some of the queries at last week’s CNBC encounter seemed designed to provoke rather than elucidate. Ted Cruz’s memorable characterization of the questions sounded like a parody: “Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?” But the moderators, using different words, really did ask those things.
They weren’t crazy questions, though, even if they should have been framed in a less confrontational way.
Trump was asked about the central argument of his candidacy, which is that his brains, energy and competence would allow him to accomplish improbable feats such as building a wall along the southern border and making Mexico pay for it, deporting 11 million illegal immigrants and cutting taxes without increasing the deficit. “Is this a comic-book version of a presidential campaign?” was not the best way to phrase it, but the question was certainly germane.
Carson was asked about math because his proposal for a flat income tax of around 15 percent doesn’t come close to adding up. Kasich was asked his opinion of front-runners Trump and Carson because he had begun the evening with an unprompted attack on the two outsiders as unqualified to be president.
Rubio was asked to respond to an editorial in Florida’s Sun Sentinel newspaper that cited his absenteeism from Senate floor votes and called on him to resign his seat. The paper’s stance was “evidence of the bias that exists in the American media today,” he said, omitting the fact that the Sun Sentinel endorsed him in his 2010 Senate race.
And as for Bush’s anemic poll numbers, the fact is that he was once considered a strong favorite to win the nomination. The plan was for a “shock and awe” campaign that would overwhelm the field. So far, it has fizzled.
An argument could be made that such horse-race questions are a waste of valuable air time. But the other lines of inquiry that Cruz blasted in his soliloquy were substantive and legitimate – and apparently made the candidates uncomfortable. Time to put an end to that.
Representatives from all the leading campaigns except one - those of businesswoman Carly Fiorina – met at an Alexandria, Virginia, hotel Sunday night to try to wrest control of future debates from the television networks and the Republican National Committee. The meeting was the brainchild of neurosurgeon Carson, who is running a strong second to Trump in national polls and leading him in first-in-the-nation Iowa.
After Trump’s campaign joined in calling for the summit, the others had no choice but to come along.Carson’s original idea was apparently to have all candidates onstage, including those relegated to the undercard, and for each to give a five-minute opening statement. This would take well over an hour and turn a “debate” into a string of little stump speeches. The fact that television executives would never agree to such terms did not bother Carson’s advisers, who have suggested that the debates be streamed on the Internet instead.
Republican attorney and powerbroker Ben Ginsberg – who no longer has a horse in this race, following Scott Walker’s withdrawal – chaired the meeting. Ginsberg suggested the hosts be required to make a long list of promises, including not to “ask the candidates to raise their hands to answer a question” or “have reaction shots of members of the audience or moderators during debates.”
The RNC decided last week to “suspend” a planned February debate to be hosted by NBC News – CNBC’s parent network – and Telemundo. Bush’s representative reportedly argued that the party should not turn its back on the only Spanish-language network scheduled to participate in a debate. According to Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel, quoting an attendee, Trump’s campaign manager shot back that if Telemundo were included, “Trump walks.” Sources later told The Post that Trump had decided to negotiate with the networks on his own, thank you very much.
In past cycles, the RNC was the final arbiter. But the party is in chaos and the candidates, led by Trump and Carson, are driving the bus. We'll face down Vladimir Putin and the leaders of Iran, the contenders all say, but somebody save us from reporters asking rude questions.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.