My distaste for the presidential debate format has been well documented at Hot Air, but perhaps never so validated as it was last night. Jazz went into more detail on CNBC’s epic flop, but the root of the failure came from two delusions suffered by the panel of inquisitors — excuse me, journalists conducting the debate.
The first delusion: they apparently thought they were supposed to debate the candidates rather than the candidates debating each other. John Harwood et al repeatedly interrupted the presidential candidates with tendentious and insulting challenges and commentary rather than allow them to answer the questions. The second major delusion was that they thought their audience in this debate was located mainly in the salons of the Big Apple rather than Republican primary voters, and spent the first hour asking questions about practically anything other than the issues and substance on which those voters will choose the nominee.
As such, the performances of the candidates last night may have been overshadowed by the clueless arrogance of the so-called “moderators,” and thanks to the inane questions asked, very little of substance got discussed. Even so, at least in gladiatorial terms, some clear winners and losers emerged.
Marco Rubio — It became clear that both the panel and Jeb Bush went into the debate targeting Rubio, and he demonstrated that he prepared well to respond to it. Rubio reminded viewers that the complaints from the Sun-Sentinel about missing votes somehow never arose when Democratic Senator Bob Graham ran for the presidential nomination in 2003 and missed 32.5% of votes that year, and launched into the evening’s first broadside against mainstream-media bias. Inexplicably, Jeb Bush then followed up by claiming his right as a constituent to tell Rubio to resign, and Rubio responded by dressing down his former mentor as a stooge of his handlers, leaving Bush huffing and puffing but dropping the topic. The CNBC panel then relied on a long-dismissed NYT hit piece on Rubio’s personal finances, which allowed Rubio to embrace his middle-class origins and the good fortune he has had in life — while promoting the paperback release of his book. He masterfully parried attacks from all sides, and demonstrated the kind of skill and talent needed to prevail in the partisan grinder of a general election.
Ted Cruz — Either Cruz tied with Rubio or came narrowly behind him, perhaps only lacking the attacks that Rubio had coming at him. Cruz humiliated Harwood and Carl Quintanilla by shredding their questions and behavior in a rant that had Quintanilla trying desperately to change the subject. It changed the entire tenor of the debate, and had liberals aghast that … they agreed with Cruz on something. Cruz had a Newt Gingrich moment — in the best way possible.
Chris Christie — Yes, his policies are not fully in line with conservatives, but Christie came across as the most likable and relatable candidate on stage. When the CNBC panel veered off into fantasy football gambling, Christie gave vent to the same frustration that viewers felt about the nonsensical and drifting nature of this so-called debate. When Harwood continued interrupting to inject himself into the debate, Christie got laughs for telling him that “even in New Jersey, that’s considered rude.” Christie was alone in appearing to enjoy himself on stage.
Donald Trump and Ben Carson — Neither did any damage to themselves, but neither really stood out in this debate either. That’s fine for both — they’re at the top of the leader board, and an evening of defense is pretty much what the doctor ordered (pun intended). Oddly, only Kasich went after either one of them. At some point, the other candidates are going to have to challenge the leaders in debates, but last night everyone other than Kasich rightly focused on the moderators.
Jeb Bush — Not just for the botched Rubio attack, but also for yet another listless performance even apart from it. However, the attack encapsulated everything that’s wrong with the Bush campaign. It was telegraphed, poorly launched, and had no effect. If Cruz had a Newt Gingrich moment, then Jeb had a Tim Pawlenty “ObamneyCare” moment, and that’s not good at all. And the question still remains why Bush went after Rubio rather than Trump or Carson — so not only was the attack poorly handled, but Bush’s target selection and overall strategy has to come into serious question. What’s the raison d’être for Jeb! 2016 now?
John Kasich — At least someone went after the leaders. Unfortunately for Kasich, his attacks ended up falling flat, especially since the panel had to coax him to name names while doing so. Kasich ended up looking like Howard Beale from Network rather than an experienced statesman who can effectively put pretenders in their place. Trump barely had to flick Kasich’s remarks off his shoulder, and Kasich had nothing else to contribute.
CNBC — See above, although Jim Cramer and Rick Santelli deserve special mention for at least trying to keep the debate on the topic of economics.
Voters — The first two GOP debates spent at least some time on significant issues, and were organized in a way to produce intelligent discourse on them. There was almost nothing of substance to be gleaned from this debate, thanks to CNBC’s embarrassing performance. Once again, we are reminded that the presidential debate format is more about glitz and gags than substance, but few expected that to be proven so dramatically last night.