“Governor Huckabee…you have said that a candidate for president must have the moral authority to unite the country. When you look at Donald Trump do you see someone who has the moral authority to unite the country?”
That was just one of several “controversial” questions directed by moderators toward the candidates in last night’s Republican debate. CNBC’s John Harwood the author of that particular query.
Another Harwood gem. This time to Donald Trump: “Is this (Trump’s run for the White House) a comic book version of a presidential campaign?”
If you watched either of the previous two GOP presidential debates you had to tune into last night’s event with expectations of some amount of mudslinging among the candidates. I bet you didn’t anticipate that the moderators would be there in the pit with them.
You know it’s bad when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, having been interrupted by the moderator several times says: “to tell you the truth…even in New Jersey what you are doing is called rude.”
What was supposed to be a debate about economic issues turned into a hot mess. The largest applause lines came after Christie, Rubio, Cruz and Trump called out the moderators and the media for their bias and faulty reporting. It was as if decades of pent up Republican anger over perceived main street media bias finally exploded.
Who won the debate? Who knows? It depends what you are looking for.
It terms of optics and performance…Rubio and Cruz shined. Rubio’s comments and responses were more scripted whereas Cruz let it fly off the cuff. Both were effective. Christie had some notable moments.
As far as substance…it was a train wreck. Christie did a good job of laying out the facts about the solvency problems of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. His solutions, which include raising the retirement age, are politically unpopular but economically accurate. He demonstrated political courage in putting them out there. Kasich did a good job of explaining how his economic strategies worked to balance the federal budget in Washington turn a deficit into a surplus in Ohio. Ben Carson’s economic proposal made no sense in part because he could not articulate it in any form of the English language. The other candidates’ economic plans and tax reform proposals were pure pandering with no grasp of reality.
Trump was very quiet. The other candidates didn’t bother Trump much after he eviscerated Kasich’s opening bell attempt to marginalize both the Trump and Carson candidacies. He remained in the shadows until the end where he rightly took full credit for negotiating a deal with CNBC that reduced the scheduled length of the debate from 3.5 hours to 2 hours. He gave Carson credit for joining him in the effort. Trump’s parting shot: “CNBC wanted the debate to go 3 to 3 and a half hours. It’s too long. Nobody is going to watch. I found out that CNBC was charging $250,000 for a 30 second commercial. They wanted a 3-3.5 hour debate. So even though it cost them a lot of money in 2 minutes I negotiated them down to 2 hours so we can all get the hell out of here. I’ll do the same for America.”
Current Iowa frontrunner Ben Carson, ended the night unscathed. The presumed full frontal attacks never happened.
Still looking for winners and losers? Consider this…
The pundits all had Rubio and Cruz as the co-winners with Trump right on their heels. Post-debate online polls from Drudge, Times and CNBC all had Trump as the clear winner going away.
There was no debating the loser. Jeb Bush.
In the run up to this debate the Bush Campaign was in a death spiral. The consensus was that the former governor needed a strong performance to soothe the rattled nerves of supporters and donors. Last week’s big summit meeting with Bush 41, Bush 43 and major donors and divisors gave credence to the narrative. Bush came out as before…flat…docile…in a nerdy kind of way. His attempts to go on the offensive often backfired. His performance lackluster. Bush knew it. In post-debate comments he told reporters: “If they want a performer, I’m not the guy.” Unfortunately the ability to “perform” in difficult situations is a key component in being president. There are more debates to come. More chances for “Jeb!” to repair his image. Is it too late?
The other big loser last night was the main street media in general and the CNBC moderators in particular. Presidential debates should be about the candidates and their views on the issues. They should not be about the moderators. They should not be about “gotcha” questions and orchestrating must see TV mudslinging moments.
There is an old adage about dealing with the media that says: “Never enter into a war of words with someone who buys ink by the barrel.” Ten GOP candidates tested that theory last night. Payback can be a bitch.