After the CNBC debate creaked mercifully to its finale, pollster Frank Luntz conducted his usual Fox News focus group. The story of the debate might have been the ethering of Jeb Bush by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), but the best moment had belonged to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). His pitiless, withering attack on CNBC's moderators got the best response in Luntz's decade of focus grouping.
With that it mind, it's worth looking at a white lie buried within the answer — one that said everything about the conservative complaints en route after the debate. "The contrast with the Democratic debate," said Cruz angrily, "where every fawning question from the media was, 'Which of you is more handsome and why?'"
This wasn't really how the CNN-sponsored debate went. The first question, directed at Hillary Clinton, came after moderator Anderson Cooper ticked off a list of positions that the candidate had abandoned under pressure from the party base. "Will you say anything to get elected?" Cooper asked. After Clinton's pat answer, Cooper named more flip-flops, and followed up: "Do you change your political identity based on who you're talking to?"
He only let Clinton go after she gave a memorable response to his question about whether she was a progressive or a moderate. It was on to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who got asked a procedural but pointed question: "How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?" Cooper followed up, still on the electability side of the argument: "You supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. You honeymooned in the Soviet Union. And just this weekend, you said you're not a capitalist."
Cooper trudged on to minor candidates, asking Lincoln Chafee why he changed parties twice ("It seems like pretty soft granite"), asking Martin O'Malley about crime in Baltimore ("The current top prosecutor in Baltimore, also a Democrat, blames your zero-tolerance policies for sowing the seeds of unrest"), then asking Jim Webb why he had opposed affirmative action.
That was the tone — aggressive, if weighted with the issues more likely to make the candidates argue amongst themselves. Conservatives could argue that reporters accepted more Democratic premises than Republican ones; they might point to the lack of questions about abortion rights. But CNN had hardly asking "fawning" questions.
The backlash to the CNBC debate, and the attacks on moderator John Harwood in particular, share a premise: Republicans were trapped in an unfair debate by a biased moderator. The unspoken part of that premise was that no debate of Democrats could ever be skewed like that. By Thursday afternoon, this argument was spreading even to candidates for Senate. It was that much of a sure thing for donors.
"Marco Rubio is right when he points out that Democrats have their own Super PAC in the form of a liberal media establishment that provides huge in-kind donations to candidates like Hillary Clinton," said Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), an aspirant for Rubio's Senate seat. "Chairman [Reince] Priebus got taken to the cleaners by CNBC, and the Republican Party can't let this happen again. All debates should feature a conservative media partner."
In baseball (and with apologies to Eric Alterman), this would be called "working the refs." At the start of the debate selection process, Priebus repeatedly said that conservative co-sponsors would be brought on to smarten debates and that obviously left-wing pundits would not be allowed on. The CNBC debate might have shifted the Overton Window here and redefined the kind of treatment that could be tolerated from the media.
The irony is that CNBC's worst questions seemed to be composed to erase the appearance of partisanship. The ad hominem questions that angered Cruz et al., by being about personal aspects of candidates — Marco Rubio's bookkeeping, for example — were the only ones predicated on objective facts. The questions that nudged the candidates on policy were often cited to third parties, as when Harwood asked Rubio about H-1B visas in the context of a dispute with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
Framing questions that way did not rattle the Republicans. It put them in the mood to strike back, with talking points or rebuttals that they knew would go over. It was a strange way to draw out candidates. Just look, for comparison, at how PRI's Kai Ryssdal grilled Ben Carson on his economic policies. He did not look to independent critics; he asked about Carson's actual positions, and followed up until he could get clarity.
CNN's format was friendlier to Democrats, as CNN's Republican debate was a little less contested by the Republicans. But the Republican critique of the media, which can sound like carping if mistimed, is being furthered by the party itself and most of its presidential candidates. Reporters, well aware of their trust ratings among conservatives, might be tempted to adapt.
That could mean different debate questions, or it could mean more cynicism in the press itself about whether it is slanting its coverage in favor of Hillary Clinton. Either way, this is a fight worth having for Cruz — and some worthy fights are just not fair.