On Oct. 28, CNBC, the business-focused subsidiary of NBC hosted the third of a series of Republican presidential primary debates. Entitled “Your money, your vote,” the debate primarily focused on the economy.
One of the most notable remarks of the evening was made by Ted Cruz, accusing CNBC’s moderators, and the American media more broadly, of refusing to ask the potential candidates substantive questions, and rather goading them into personal attacks on one another.
This opinion registered significant applause the attendees at the debate that evening, which likely spurred the Republican National Committee to make the decision to suspend their partnership with NBC to air debates.
The RNC, chaired by Reince Priebus, agreed that the conduct of the debate was chaotic, and the moderation favored infighting between candidates rather than calm policy discussion.
I believe Cruz and Priebus are wrong on this point. The questions posed by the moderators were focused, often posing important and demanding answers that matter when considering who to elect as president. The real problem with the conduct of the debate is the way the questions often were couched, seemingly more for the entertainment of an audience than for educational purposes. Witty one-liners have little place in a debate between national leaders and even less so coming from the moderators of what should be a relatively dry event.
I don’t aim to criticize CNBC for pursuing ratings, that is the goal of any TV network, and while snarky comments might boost ratings, but this kind of atmosphere should be removed from politics. The election shouldn’t become a circus, even if it may resemble one at times. I don’t believe that CNBC’s questions were at all qualitatively worse than those by CNN or Fox during their debates, but the delivery of the moderators was often unnecessarily abrasive and leading.
One example that comes to mind was the “discussion” of Donald Trump’s tax plan. The moderators claimed that his proposed tax cuts would be a mathematical impossibility to implement without causing a swelling deficit.
This, in and of itself, is completely acceptable, but when the moderators then state that CNBC’s bipartisan experts found it similar to Trump trying to flap his arms to fly away from the podium, it becomes completely gratuitous.
I admit, the image of Trump’s fluttering arms made me chuckle, but the point of political discourse is not to entertain or amuse. The comparison is derisive and, although Donald Trump may be an unsavory character, something more professional or just a simple statement of the infeasibility of his fiscal policy would have proved much more appropriate.
I am not opposed to funny or pointed comments. Political debates are historically full of such interactions. The problem arises when moderators are the ones hurling insults at the nominees.
I’m not sure that CNBC did anything especially bad relative to the other networks to merit the boycott. I won’t go into the gory details but both the CNN and Fox Republican debates did much more to explicitly bait candidates into attacking one another.
Perhaps this third round of what became known as the “circular firing-squad” in the 2012 primary cycle, of Republicans slandering and degrading one another in primary free-for-alls has finally reached a breaking point for the Republican leadership.
Another option is that there was something in fact qualitatively different about the CNBC debate, although based on my exposure I wouldn’t know what it was. None of this really matters though.
The RNC’s decision sends a message that petty, below-the-belt wisecracks and zingers are not tolerated at these events. The Republican field in the last couple election cycles has grown cartoonish enough, especially considering the real-estate moguls and neurosurgeons as candidates, that the field does not need any help in attracting criticism.
Both viewers at home and the moderators themselves enjoy candidate back-and-forth. This bickering devalues our political system and turns the debates into spectacles. The long-term health of our political system requires more substantive discourse about issues that matter to American citizens.
Scott Johnson ’18 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Gladstone, MO. He majors in economics.