When the debate becomes about the debate

By Tom Baxter

If ever a political movement can be said to have sprung to life live and on the air, it was that moment back in 2009 when Rick Santelli’s rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange gave the Tea Party movement its name and its rallying cry. Santelli works for the financial network CNBC, along with several other on-air personalities of rightward leanings.

Last week, CNBC got to host a Republican presidential debate. So what could possibly have gone wrong? So much, that the Republican National Committee has cancelled an upcoming debate that was to be co-sponsored by NBC and Telemundo, the presidential candidates are on the verge of defying the RNC’s authority to organize the debates, and the big debate of the moment in the presidential campaign is about the debates themselves.

To a format already top heavy with 10 candidates, the financial network added a panel so loaded with moderators they seemed at times to be jostling with each other for time, like the candidates on stage. There were three “big picture” people — Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and John Harwood — who were joined intermittently by Jim Kramer, Sharon Epperson, and Santelli, the patron saint, who got to ask a couple of questions before being ushered off.

The Republican electorate which expresses itself on social media howled in outrage over the disrespectful, hostile questions fired at their candidates, especially after Sen. Ted Cruz, who has waited long and patiently for his moment, turned directly on the outnumbered moderators about a half hour into the two-hour debate and made it all about them.

“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match,” Cruz said.

Each of the questions Cruz then ticked off — “Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain, Ben Carson, can you do math,” etc. — was pretty snarky, to be sure. But an important distinction should be made: they weren’t very tough questions. For the most part, their snarky questions, like the “Why don’t you slow down?” jab at Sen. Marco Rubio, were just setups for the candidates’ well-trained response lines.

As the night wore on, the questions got a little sharper. Quick, true to her name, double-checked something Trump said and caught him flat-footed on an immigration question. But by then all the candidates had caught on to the winning message of the night, and when they couldn’t talk about the media, talked about anything else they pleased.

The smallest details of the debate format were negotiated between the network and the RNC, but as Trump might say, who did this deal?

How could they have done this better? It would have been fun to see Santelli and his network nemesis, Steve Liesman,  as a moderator tag team. Scott Wapner has moderated debates-by-phone between Carl Icahn and Bill Ackman. Maybe he could have ridden herd on the candidates better than last week’s triumvirate.

But these are not the sort of ideas likely to pass corporate muster in a ratings-hungry organization anxious to get as many of its faces on the air as it could.

The CNBC employees who took a charter plane back to New York for the next morning’s show were said to be “shell shocked”  by the negative reaction to their performance, but there was a silver lining. It was, an executive said, “the most profitable night in the network’s history.”

And there’s the rub. The enormous financial interest for all the networks involved in the process being overseen by the RNC automatically raises suspicions about whether the questions are being asked to serve the public good, or to goose the Twitter feed.

The RNC imposed this limited-debate system because party officials thought there were too many debates in the last cycle, and perhaps there were. But this year, having a debate every few days might help to winnow the field. Nothing else has done much good.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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