The United States is a nation founded on constructive dialogue. From the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 to the multimillion-viewer general election debates of today, our political leaders have constructively and critically discussed how to create a more effective political system. However, many people now believe that in the past few decades, American political debates, particularly in the presidential primary races, have become less about constructive dialogue on substantive issues and more about candidates showcasing their personalities and attacking their enemies. In a political system that is increasingly driven by private interests, network-employed debate moderators are under pressure to boost viewership while maintaining the favor of the political parties that organize the primary debates. The interplay of these differing interests leads to hostility between the networks, the candidates, and the parties, as occurred after CNBC hosted the third GOP debate.
Primary candidates are under immense pressure to stand out among a large crowd of competitors and to appeal to as many viewers—soon to be voters—as possible. Primary debates provide candidates with a platform for doing just that; however, these debates are now hosted and moderated by private media outlets, which complicates the mix of competing interests. Mainstream media outlets stand to profit immensely, with millions of people tuning in to watch the debates and millions of dollars rolling in from advertising purchased by the candidates. It is in the best interest of these media outlets to attract as many viewers as possible, which they do in part provoking and incendiary questions. Fiery arguments and emotional outbursts may not constitute good politics, but they make for great television.
However, the networks must strike a balance between asking probing, challenging, and even offensive questions and appeasing the national party committees, who are responsible for choosing the networks to host the debates. The national committees are interested in promoting their strongest candidates, while the networks are interested in creating memorable content that will boost viewership. The candidates, of course, are interested in promoting themselves and their policies. All these interests align so rarely in the modern system of primary debates that it is inevitable that some parties will feel cheated when their interests are not prioritized.
Of the four Republican primary debates that have been held thus far, CNBC’s GOP debate has come under the most intense fire for its moderators’ actions. Ultimately, the reason for the massive controversy surrounding the debate is twofold. For one, while the CNBC moderators did ask many relevant, policy-driven questions, their phrasing evinced a hostility that was absent from the other debates. John Harwood’s question about whether Donald Trump was running a “comic book version of a presidential campaign” undoubtedly set a confrontational tone, as did the question to Governor Jeb Bush about the idea that the Republican Party has given way to “know-nothingism.” In fact, the latter question felt like an attack on smacked of a confrontation with the GOP as a whole. The tense, hostile tone of the CNBC moderators’ questions does not mean that the questions weren’t substantive. However, it does mean that they were more likely to offend and upset the candidates and to foster conflict.
The second reason for the CNBC debate uproar, and for the candidates’ fervent criticism of the moderators, lies in the nature of this particular primary race. There are currently fourteen candidates for the GOP nomination, as opposed to the three Democratic candidates. The Republican voter base faces the challenge of choosing among a large group of dynamic, persuasive, and committed candidates. The candidates, meanwhile, face the challenge of distinguishing themselves from the rest of the group. Additionally, conservative voters generally trust fewer mainstream media outlets than their liberal counterparts do, yet those media outlets host the primary debates. Together, these factors give the candidates great incentives to attack the moderators and the media and the freedom to dodge potentially problematic questions.
In fact, the most memorable moment of the CNBC debate occurred when Ted Cruz lashed out at the moderators for their lack of substantive, policy-driven questions. This anger was echoed by the GOP as a whole and affected the party’s management of future primary debates. Cruz’s attack was the spark that ignited the fiery controversy surrounding the debate. At a forum in Iowa on October 31, the Texas senator suggested that future debates should be moderated by “real conservatives” such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Mark Levin. This suggestion seems to be in line with the stance taken by the Republican National Committee (RNC), whose chairman, Reince Priebus, suspended the partnership between the RNC and NBC News for February’s scheduled GOP primary debate. Priebus’s letter to NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack reflects the views of much of the Republican Party on the debate moderators:
“While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ visions and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of ‘gotcha’ questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates,” he wrote. “What took place Wednesday night was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas. I have tremendous respect for the First Amendment and freedom of the press. However, I also expect the media to host a substantive debate on consequential issues important to Americans. CNBC did not.”
Despite the popular Republican opinion that the debate moderators, Carl Quintanilla, John Harwood, and Becky Quick, were hostile and unfair in their questioning of the candidates, it does not seem that there was less discussion of actual policy than in other debates. In fact, the candidates were given the opportunity to firmly establish their political positions and to show the audience where they stood in relation to the views of the GOP. One of the most pointed-to moments of digression from discussion of economic policy was the exchange between Quintanilla and Governor Bush about fantasy football. However frivolous the topic may seem, Governor Bush’s response did raise several interesting points about the government’s role in regulating day trading, and the question provided him with another opportunity to express his fervent disapproval of government involvement in the private sector. This was an effective place for Bush to turn the argument once again against the Democrats, rather than against his Republican competitors, as had been his tendency in many of the previous debates. In doing so, he effectively refocused the audience’s attention on the general election. Governor Christie also used the opportunity to appeal to the right wing as a whole; when he criticized the moderators for asking the fantasy football question, he endeared himself to anti-media conservatives who were already unsettled by the aggressive slant of the debate questions to that point.
If the fantasy football question was the fluffiest of the debate questions, the weightiest came when Quick asked Carson about his tax plan. This question was entirely reasonable; it gave Carson the opportunity to defend his somewhat outlandish tax plan, while Kasich, Trump, and Fiorina were all able to respond to Carson’s plan and to discuss their own. In fact, Quick’s question about tax reform did not differ substantially from the other questions asked during the CNBC debate. It addressed significant economic issues, though in a slightly aggressive way, and it forced candidates to critically address their own and each other’s stances. In spite of the criticism of the moderators’ choice of topics, the questions were, as a whole, substantive and significant.
In his attack on the moderators, Ted Cruz interpreted the question about tax reform to mean “Ben Carson, can you do math?” However, Quick’s discussion with Carson was clearly more subtle and policy-driven than Cruz’s statements would suggest; she presented numbers and statistics that pinpointed the weaknesses in Carson’s tax plan. The debate questions in general were more legitimate than they may seem at first glance. In an article for Vox after the debate, Ezra Klein compared the first six questions of each of the debates so far and reached the conclusion that the questions from the CNBC debate were not in fact more superficial or “ridiculous” than the others, as Mark Huckabee had claimed. CNBC’s second question was Quick’s remark on the possible inefficacy of Carson’s tax plan, while CNN’s second question in its Republican debate pitted Trump against Bush and Governor Bobby Jindal, asking Trump why his opponents have claimed he is not a “serious candidate.” All networks have confronted the candidates with caricatures of their personas: Trump as the bombastic anti-establishment demagogue, Bush as the latest manifestation of the nation’s most fraught political dynasty, and Fiorina as the humorless, disgraced CEO hoping for a second wind in politics. This is perhaps where the disadvantage of the involvement of mainstream media in the political process is most clear. The moderators’ focus on the popular perceptions and prejudices surrounding the candidates (consider CNBC’s characterization of Rubio as “a young man in a hurry” during the debate) is appealing to viewers who enjoy watching the clash of big personalities, but this focus does not further the political process, nor does it help the candidates or the parties, who must ultimately combat and work to enrich the one-dimensional picture of their policies that are presented to the public.
The CNBC debate, and its predecessors, were not anomalies in the American political system. Neither the moderators nor the candidates nor the networks were entirely to blame for the uproar surrounding the debate; rather, it was a natural result of a political system that hinges on long election cycles, personality politics, and a relationship between private networks and political parties. The third GOP debate was not a failure; it was a productive—if controversial—political forum that arose naturally from an election system that, while certainly flawed, allows the United States to remain the world’s most powerful democracy.
The image featured in this article was taken by Jamelle Bouie. The original image can be found here.
Kaeli Subberwal is a fourth-year majoring in political science and minoring in physics. She has spent her summers working in local journalism at the Summit Daily News and national journalism at HuffPost, and doing archival research through the College Summer Institute in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. In her free time, Kaeli enjoys reading, hiking in the Rocky Mountains, and doing crossword puzzles instead of studying.