Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate became as much about the journalists who moderated it as it was about the candidates who answered — or batted away — their questions.
The moderators, their questions and their lack of control over a fractious field of candidates jostling for airtime became a central part of the debate’s narrative. And the shower of criticism that followed illustrated how powerfully anti-media rhetoric can resonate with the Republican base.
The debate’s host, cable network CNBC, gave them plenty of material. Moderators John Harwood, Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla were under fire starting Wednesday night and stretching well into Thursday for their stewardship of the two-hour debate.
They repeatedly clashed with the candidates while asking questions. On several occasions, they seemed to lack the confidence to challenge false assertions. They asked some small-bore questions. And they regularly interrupted the candidates or talked over them in a way that seemed to rob them of control and contributed to a free-for-all atmosphere.
The audience was more akin to that of a daytime talk show, booing moderator questions and cheering when candidates criticized CNBC.
“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said, to cheers. “This is not a cage match.”
At one point, Quick stated that businessman Donald Trump had been critical of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for supporting an increase in the number of visas for foreign professional workers. Trump shot back that the assertion wasn’t true — that he had not been critical of Zuckerberg, and that he favors keeping skilled workers in the United States.
Quick seemed flustered and questioned her own research, allowing Trump to take control of the narrative.
“Where did I read this and come up with this that you were . . . ?” she said.
“Probably, I don’t know — you people write this stuff. I don’t know where you. . . .” he trailed off as the audience applauded.
But Quick was right, according to a document Trump’s campaign had released on his immigration stances.
Similarly, when retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was asked about his relationship with Mannatech, a nutritional supplement company that settled a claim of false advertising brought by Texas, he turned the question onto Quintanilla, who noted that the neurosurgeon was on the company’s home page.
Carson said it was done without his permission.
When Quintanilla followed up — “Does that speak to your vetting process or judgment in any way?” — the audience booed. “See?” Carson said. “They know.”
The answer ended the exchange — even though Carson has in fact had a long relationship with Mannatech, appearing in videos with the look of advertisements and delivering paid speeches at company-sponsored events. According to the Wall Street Journal, Carson started taking the company’s supplements after being diagnosed with prostate cancer and said in a video that his symptoms went away within three weeks of taking the pills. The paper also reported that Carson said in a video that was taken down from Mannatech’s Web site that the company provides a good way for people to “improve their financial situation.”
Quintanilla asked Carson about none of that.
The debate was supposed to be focused on economic issues, and there was plenty of talk about tax plans, entitlement programs and other issues of substance. But some of the questions veered toward the small-bore, with queries about the candidates’ biggest perceived weaknesses, whether Trump is running the “comic book version of a presidential campaign” and even the discount retailer Costco.
Trump accused the moderators of asking “nasty” questions. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said they had missed a chance to ask about substance. Carson called on his GOP rivals to help him end “gotcha” debate questions.
Cruz had one of the evening’s testier exchanges with a moderator. Asked by Carl Quintanilla about the debt limit and whether his opposition to it showed that he is “not the kind of problem-solver Americans want,” the senator pushed back.
“You look at the questions — ‘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?’ ” Cruz said during the debate. “How about talking about the substantive questions people care about?”
Quintanilla continued: “I asked you about the debt limit and I got no answer.”
“You want me to answer that question?” Cruz asked. “I’m happy to answer that question.”
Moderator John Harwood said he wanted to ask Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) about the same thing.
“You don’t want to hear the answer,” Cruz said. Harwood responded that Cruz had used his time “on something else.”
“You’re not interested in an answer,” Cruz said, and Harwood moved on to Paul.
It wasn’t the first time debate moderators had come under fire; in August, after the first Republican debate, Trump was highly critical of Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s questions about controversial remarks about women Trump had made in the past.
But the backlash from this week’s debate came quickly — from Republicans and even some Democrats.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus slammed CNBC in a series of post-debate tweets, writing that he would fight to ensure a more “robust exchange” is allowed in future debates.
“CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled. #GOPDebate,” he wrote.
“In spite of the moderators, I’m proud of our team for standing up against the improper and unprofessional display put on by CNBC,” he said in another tweet.
The debate also made for some strange bedfellows.
“oh my god did i just hear Ted Cruz say something awesome that i agree with? Yes. The media is even stupider than the pols. Who’s on first?” HBO talk-show host Bill Maher tweeted.
Even on news shows Thursday morning, the candidates talked as much about the questions of the moderators as they did about their own performances.
Rubio groused Thursday that the questions weren’t substantive enough. In a debate that was supposed to be framed around economic issues, he said he thought the candidates would talk about issues that included taxes and plans to reduce the debt.
“I thought it was a wasted opportunity, and, quite frankly, that’s what made it unfair, not just to the candidates but to the American people,” he said.