If there was a point of agreement among the participants, the pundits and the public after the third Republican presidential debate, held in Boulder, Colorado, on Wednesday night, it would be that the moderators, from cable business channel CNBC, had a very bad night.
“CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled,” tweeted Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus.
“The questions asked in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz before going through a litany of what he thought were poor questions asked of him and the other candidates — to some of the biggest applause of the night.
Conservative columnist Ben Shapiro tweeted, “These moderators are the worst I have ever seen. Bar none.” Right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt joined in: “It was as if @CNBC did its debate prep by watching reruns of West Wing and The Newsroom.”
Even political observers to the left of those folks felt the CNBC crew was not up to snuff. “The moderators seem to have given up,” The New Yorker's Amy Davidson tweeted.
But there's one other point to be made about Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick, John Harwood and the rest of the CNBC team: none of them is running for president.
Bashing the media is a time-honored tradition in American politics. Three-time presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “I deplore the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them.”
But, at the end of the night, no one is running on a “break up big media” platform. The question must be asked, does the disappointment have its roots in the moderators, the candidates or the people the candidates want to win over?
It is true that, at points, the CNBC panel seemed to lose control of the debate, especially when measured against the last national debate, a Democratic one, hosted by CNN. But last night, there were twice as many candidates on stage — 10 Republicans vs. 5 Democrats. And there is a not always spoken but apparently widespread desire, inside the party and out, to see the Republicans thin their own heard with some visible conflict — a “cage match,” to borrow a term used by Cruz.
But it might also be the result of what the candidates needed to accomplish. Donald Trump, the leader in most polls who has slipped behind Ben Carson in two recent surveys, needed to show he could still impress. Carly Fiorina, who saw a measurable bump in her numbers after attacking Planned Parenthood in the second GOP debate, has failed to sustain her momentum. She needed to show she was not a one-trick pony. Rand Paul needed to convince donors they should still give to his presidential campaign and not his Kentucky Senate re-election. Chris Christie was fighting to keep himself on the main stage. And Jeb Bush, the heir apparent to the GOP nomination, is running a campaign that has never caught fire and is now trimming staff and salaries. He was desperate to stop the bleeding.
All of those candidates came to Boulder with the rehearsed tactical moves deemed necessary to achieve their third-debate goals, but the canned zingers and pre-packaged narratives didn't always pair neatly with questions about the budget deal or even drug policy.
So, in retrospect, it was possibly predictable that the candidates deemed in early reviews to have done the best last night are the ones that targeted the questions and the questioners. Trump called them “ridiculous,” while Christie cited a question about regulating fantasy sports betting as trivial. Both singled out questions as “nasty.”
Rubio, who may have now leapt ahead of Bush as the GOP establishment's Floridian of choice, called the “mainstream media” the Democrats' “ultimate super-PAC.”
But it was Cruz, with his well-metered outburst about why Americans don't trust the media, that scored the night's highest marks across a wide array of metrics, from TV highlight packages and pundit proclamations to social media and “dial groups,” where research audiences literally turn a dial up or down to signal their relative interest and approval. And it is Cruz who, by many accounts, did his candidacy the most good.
And chances are that's no accident. Even though Cruz pointed to several on stage to criticize the questions, his examples were generic and mostly did not specifically reference what was asked — "Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?"
Cruz’s lines were probably not spontaneous. In fact, it was quite reminiscent of Newt Gingrich's attacks on CNN's John King in 2012 over a question about extramarital relations. “I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that,” Gingrich said. And then to applause perhaps even louder than Cruz’s last night, Gingrich said, “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”
Gingrich surged in the polls in the days following that debate, and Cruz must be hoping for a similar outcome.
Of course, lost in all the criticism of CNBC is what that supposedly frivolous question was: “Senator Cruz,” asked CNBC's Quintanilla, “Congressional Republicans, Democrats, and the White House are about to strike a compromise that would raise the debt limit, prevent a government shutdown, and calm financial markets that fear of another Washington-created crises on the way. Does your opposition to it show that you're not the kind of problem-solver American voters want?”
Cruz never mentioned what exactly was nasty or frivolous in asking about the debt limit, a crucial issue for the next president. But his response was, apparently, just what his audience wanted.