We are still only one Democratic debate into the campaign but it didn’t take long for the smug to start flowing. The candidates, in their first and since then only on-stage exchange, were patting themselves on the back for tackling the “real issues.” Here’s part of Hillary Clinton’s closing statement:
“I think what you did see is that, in this debate, we tried to deal with some of the very tough issues facing our country. That’s in stark contrast to the Republicans who are currently running for president.”
The left wing media has likewise lambasted the Republican cage matches for overlooking their favorite issues and focusing on personalized attacks – all the while praising the Democrats. This ignores some crucial differences between the two fields – the GOP debates have been an ordeal of getting 10 candidates to distinguish themselves on a single stage. By contrast, Hillary Clinton has only faced token challenges from the moderators and her Democratic opponents, who promptly began dropping like flies, to give way to the coronation that had been in progress all along.
To be sure, there are some problematic aspects of the Republican debates. For one, the presence of a certain loud-mouthed frontrunner has certainly lowered the overall quality of discourse. But let’s be clear – the candidates can generally only discuss issues based on what questions are asked, even though they tend to get the credit or blame for the content of the debate.
It is difficult to have a high quality debate when the moderators choose to pose irrelevant or openly insulting questions. Do we really need to waste precious airtime discussing fantasy sports, canceling state dinners with the Chinese, or whether it is scary to think of Donald Trump with nuclear weapons (even if it is)?
The fact that media outlets are the ones hosting the debate, moderating it, and concocting the questions presents a strange conflict of interest. First of all, the pre- and post- debate narratives are being reported by the same institutions actively creating them – a perverse incentive to generate newsworthy sound bites in order to gain viewership. Furthermore most major media outlets are asymmetrically and historically biased against conservatives, and thus inclined to find the Democrats reasonable and the Republicans crazy.
In short, they are the ones choosing the silly topics for Republicans, yet the parties’ candidates get the credit or blame for what is discussed. Liberal moderators may ask inappropriate questions due to a fundamental, albeit perhaps unintentional, lack of understanding of the conservative point of view. They may even resort to blatant and hostile attacks on the candidates. The latter was on full display during the CNBC debate, which was moderated so wretchedly that afterwards even left-wingers piled on hard.
Not surprisingly, the candidates decided to lash out during the CNBC debate (a tactic which has been historically successful for Republicans). Marco Rubio pointed out the media’s double standard regarding Congressional attendance during presidential campaigns – an issue which nobody really cares about except Jeb Bush’s campaign handlers. Ted Cruz gave an even more spirited defense of everyone on stage, fighting with the moderators to the point where he used all his speaking time and was refused more to answer the original question (this led to heavy booing, and the moderators eventually caved and restated their question to him later). The ordeal was so bad that the RNC suspended the next NBC debate while the campaigns pushed to manage future debates on their own terms rather than the party’s.
This ordeal showed us that while Democrats snickered at the content of the Republican debates, perhaps nobody was as frustrated as the candidates themselves. As Senator Rubio put it, despite his own success in the CNBC debate:
“I think the bigger frustration that you saw is all of those candidates on the stage had prepared for a substantive debate. Everyone was ready to talk about trade policy and the debt and tax policies. We were ready for that. Everybody was. And then you get questions like the ones everybody got, which were clearly designed to either get us to fight against each other, or to say something embarrassing about us and ask us to react.”
So you would think that everyone is on the same page: that more substantive debate provides a better service to voters.
Instead, what has followed is a concerted attack on conservatives who stood up for themselves in the CNBC debate, and have sought a more nuanced discussion in future debates by forbidding “raise your hand if” and “yes or no” questions, whose main purpose tends to be generating cheap sound bites and entrapping candidates without giving them a chance to explain their positions in depth.
Professional Comedian-with-an-Agenda Trevor Noah said that complaints about the temperature of the debate hall were “babyproof[ing] the whole election from top to bottom.” Jack Shafer of Politico said the candidates should not be criticizing debate rules because the RNC created them – as if the candidates should not be allowed to dissent from the party.
Rachel Maddow conceded that the candidates had legitimate gripes with the “nutty” debates, yet still mocked them for voicing them. Even President Obama, dubiously fancying himself an expert at being tough with adversarial world leaders, chided Republicans’ inability to handle mere CNBC moderators (this coming from a guy who would rather be interviewed on fawning late-night comedy shows than Fox News).
So just to summarize, here’s the situation:
- Media outlets ask stupid or unfair questions at Republican debates,
- Liberals, in turn, mock Republicans for having silly debates with no substance,
- Republicans criticize moderates and try to change debate format,
- Liberals and media (is there any point in separating the two?) together mock Republicans for standing up for themselves.
Just goes to show, conservatives always have an uphill battle to fight in the media.
This particular bias did not apply to the first debate, hosted by Fox News. Although its performance in debate management was slightly better than CNN or CNBC however, it still bears some responsibility for asking questions irrelevant to public policy.
 Interesting side note: contrast Newt Gingrich saying he would not like to answer a question about his marital life – and doing so anyway – with Hillary Clinton’s refusal to answer a question about her possibly illegal personal email server. Both received huge applause. What does this say about the respective supporters of each candidate?