Before Thursday’s Republican presidential debate, Fox Business Network anchors Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo told Politico that, in their second go-round as moderators, they wanted to be more aggressive and also get in more questions.
Unable to do both, they chose to keep the conversation moving — apparently adhering to what the Politico story referred to as their “stricter list of ‘must ask’ questions.”
That’s too bad. It’s easy to understand their desire to cover a lot of ground, and no one wants to watch moderators belabor minor points. But the sixth GOP debate suffered from a serious lack of pushback on important topics.
For instance, when Bartiromo brought up the news of the day — a New York Times report that Ted Cruz neglected to disclose a loan from Goldman Sachs on a campaign finance filing in 2012 — she allowed the Texas senator to skirt the real issue by not following up. Cruz began, predictably, by blasting the Times — a favorite target of his and conservatives, in general — and then explained the omission like this:
The entire New York Times attack is that I disclosed that loan on one filing with the United States Senate, that was a public filing, but it was not on a second filing with [Federal Election Commission]. And yes, I made a paperwork error disclosing it on one piece of paper instead of the other. But if that’s the best the New York Times has got, they better go back to the well.
This was blatant misdirection by Cruz, and he completely fudged the timeline. The “second filing” he mentioned was actually the first filing. That matters, because he omitted the Goldman Sachs loan during the campaign, meaning voters and the media didn’t know at the time that this anti-establishment, tea party darling had gone to one of the nation’s biggest banks to help finance his Senate bid.
When Cruz cited a “filing with the United States Senate,” on which he did disclose the loan, he was talking about a form he submitted after he had already been elected. Big difference. But Bartiromo moved on with a simple, “Thank you.”
After a commercial break, when Cavuto went into presidential eligibility questions related to Cruz’s Canadian birth, he failed to press harder when the senator tried to dismiss the whole thing by asserting that “the legal issue is quite straightforward.”
That's not really true. As we’ve noted before here at The Fix, Cruz has precedent on his side; Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964 and John McCain in 2008, both of whom were born beyond U.S. soil. Also, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service wrote in November 2011 that people born to U.S. citizens in foreign countries “most likely” qualify as natural-born citizens and are therefore eligible to become president.
But “most likely” isn’t the same thing as certain, and there are credible legal scholars who argue that Cruz is ineligible. We got none of this context from the moderators when Cruz — an experienced lawyer — posited that this was settled law.
It was clear that Cavuto and Bartiromo didn’t want to get hung up too long on a single subject. At one point, Bartiromo tried to follow up when front-runner Donald Trump said he is “angry because our country is a mess.”
“But what are you going to do about it?” she asked. Cavuto interjected before Trump could respond and pivoted to a question for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s the time constraints.”
Moderating debates can be a thankless job. Someone is always unhappy about something, and blocking tangential discussions is an important responsibility. What’s more, moderators have become Republican punching bags this season when candidates have felt the questions were too tough. In the current political environment, to hold candidates accountable mid-debate is to invite ridicule.
But Thursday’s proceedings in North Charleston, S.C., would have been better if Cavuto and Bartiromo had stayed on certain topics just a little bit longer — and pushed harder to knock the candidates off their scripted talking points. The result might have been fewer questions but also more insightful answers.