Actually, the headline is a little misleading.  The biggest losers at last night’s CNN debate were the people who tuned in for political enlightenment, and ended up watching a two-hour game show.  CNN’s moderator, John King, had me thinking of Rudyard Kipling and “good old grinnin’, gruntin’ Gunga Din” — but without the ironic redemption.  Any political insight got lost in King’s continuous “uh uh uh uh uh” soundtrack that kicked in within seconds of a Republican attempting to speak.  Not that there was much insight to be had in a format that insisted on asking “This or That?” questions, such as “Thin crust or deep dish?”

As I wrote in my column for The Week moments after the debate concluded, it’s not that we went into the debate with high expectations anyway, but CNN managed to fail to meet even the low bar set previously by the media for presidential debates:

Every four years, the American media decide that the best way to showcase the potential leadership of the U.S. and the free world is to crowd as many candidates as possible on a stage and play College Bowl, only with shorter time for answers. Instead of asking a question that only requires a brief, specific answer, contestants – excuse me, candidates – are tormented with open-ended questions on broad issues:

Q: In thirty seconds, please explain how you will approach entitlement reform.

A: Er … carefully?

Monday’s CNN debate managed to combine the usual inanity with a healthy dose of incompetent innovation. CNN selected John King as the moderator and the timekeeper, and needless to say, that didn’t exactly work out well. Instead of signaling with a light that time had expired, King started grunting a few seconds after candidates began their answers… or when King felt the answers were non-responsive… or whenever King felt like grunting. This led to several exchanges when the contestants – darn it, candidates – asked King if they could please finish speaking before he jumped to the next question.

That’s not to say that we didn’t learn some important answers from our potential candidates during the evening. Thanks to a brilliant new addition to the debate format, CNN and King managed to teach us that Rick Santorum prefers Jay Leno over Conan O’Brien, Tim Pawlenty prefers Coke to Pepsi, Ron Paul prefers BlackBerries to iPhones, and Michele Bachmann prefers Ludwig von Mises to John Maynard Keynes. Of course, I’m only joking on the last point. Why would a media debate moderator ask about economic policy? King actually asked Bachmann in her difficult “This or That” question to choose between Elvis Presley or Johnny Cash, and Rep. Bachmann immediately disqualified herself from Round Two by picking both. No bonus prizes for Bachmann this time!

What would one guess as the topics voters most want to hear covered in presidential debates this year?  Jobs, energy policy, economics, and foreign policy. There were a grand total of two questions on jobs, despite the dozens of attempts by the candidates to talk about job creation.  The first energy policy question came three questions before the end of the two-hour debate, and the only foreign-policy question came right before that, both after the seventh and final “This or That” question.

In fact, here are the question topics in order:

  1. Plans for job creation
  2. Tim Pawlenty’s plan for sustained 5% growth
  3. Raising taxes on the wealthy
  4. Repealing Dodd-Frank Wall Street regulatory expansion
  5. Repealing ObamaCare
  6. Pawlenty’s ObamneyCare comment (with 4 followups)
  7. Individual mandate in health insurance coverage
  8. Convincing moderates and independents
  9. “Aren’t you concerned about the influence of the Tea Party?”
  10. “CNN is hosting a Tea Party debate in September!”
  11. How to bring manufacturing jobs back from overseas
  12. Right to work legislation – is that demonizing union members?
  13. Government assistance to private enterprises
  14. Space program
  15. Housing meltdown
  16. Food safety
  17. FEMA
  18. Medicare
  19. Social Security reform
  20. Debt ceiling
  21. Separation of church and state
  22. Muslims in government
  23. Same-sex marriage
  24. DADT
  25. Abortion
  26. Immigration
  27. Eminent domain (Kelo)
  28. Ethanol subsidies – which only one candidate got to answer (Santorum)
  29. Pulling out of Afghanistan after OBL’s death
  30. Libya
  31. Should we start closing overseas military bases?
  32. Who among this group would you consider as a running mate?
  33. What have you learned in the last two hours?

On that point, we didn’t learn anything about energy policy.  We learned nothing about the deficit, except what the candidates could shoehorn into answers to inane questions.  We learned very little about economic or foreign policy.    We covered a lot of nonsense between the first question on jobs and the last question on running mates, but hardly anything that touched on actual voter priorities.  We also learned that CNN is willing to pander to both the Tea Party and Tea Party-phobes, practically in the same breath, only separated by guttural grunts from the network’s learned moderator.

The entire event was an embarrassment.