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Opinion The Insiders: CNBC has probably changed GOP presidential campaign debates forever

How the candidates jousted with the CNBC moderators (Video: Victoria M. Walker/The Washington Post)

Predictions are dangerous things. That said, here’s a prediction for you: John Harwood will never again participate in a GOP debate. Republicans are beyond angry about the conduct of the CNBC moderators — Harwood, Carl Quintanilla and Becky Quick — during Wednesday night’s primary debate. Actually, more than one Republican asked me before the debate what I thought of Harwood as a moderator. I’ve known John for forever and I admit to breaking out in a mild cold sweat whenever I was told he was holding on the phone. But I thought of him as a mostly fair-minded, smart reporter, even if I’ve also always thought of him as “one of them” as far as Republican thinking goes. Generally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with having an adversarial group of moderators ask good questions. But the moderators’ approach to this debate was beyond properly adversarial and was probably a game-changer in more ways than one. After every election, the parties tweak the debate process and change the rules to one degree or another. You can bet the old paradigm of turning over management of the debates to a specific media organization — especially one with a reputation for an anti-Republican bias — is going to end.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who had a breakthrough moment in the debate railing against the moderators’ insulting questions, did a follow-up interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier and reiterated a pretty good suggestion about the debate structure. Cruz asked why the Republican National Committee doesn’t plan at least one debate with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin as moderators. Well, that’s not a bad idea. It’s easy to suggest that the moderators should be at least neutral so they don’t simply offer up a series of softball questions that don’t challenge the candidates or put them outside of their comfort zones. But the words “Rush Limbaugh” and “softball questions” have never been used in the same sentence. I don’t think this group of Republican candidates would ever feel coddled by Limbaugh, Hannity and Levin. That trio would all ask tough questions that are of real interest to Republican voters. And I think it would be a ratings juggernaut.  Anyway, Cruz is right — the moderators in the Democratic primary debate praised the candidates and avoided creating too much fighting or tension among the candidates. There’s a big difference between a moderator asking probing questions that Republican voters want to know the answers to and taking pot shots and making belittling points under the guise of asking a question.

After all, this is the Republican primary contest and we have a big field of talented candidates. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions that are central to Republican concerns and sensibilities. The primaries should be all about Republicans asking other Republicans questions. The debacle of the CNBC debate was probably the last gasp of the grandstanding liberal media as far as the GOP’s managers are concerned. The media will no longer be allowed to conduct debates the way they think their like-minded colleagues in the media want a Republican debate to be conducted. Or in this case, the way they think their like-minded colleagues in the media want the Republican primary process to be belittled, disrupted and generally diminished.

That being said, the GOP shouldn’t overdo it in crying foul about the debate. We don’t need a Warren Commission and we don’t need to get bogged down and look like a bunch of whiners. Republicans should not be distracted by the process. We are complaining that the debate wasn’t about the issues, so let’s have our say but then move on and start discussing the issues that Republican voters care about.

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