On the CNBC debate and Republican efforts to indict a ‘crap sandwich’

Good morning Austin:

So apparently last week’s CNBC Republican debate was, in the words of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a “crap sandwich.”

Is that how a family values conservative talks?

What an unappealingly vivid turn of phrase. I hate the c-word. To me, it’s lower class than the word it is, in the ostensible interests of taste, substituting for.

But, I guess Priebus had his reasons to be upset.

Here was the full quote, from his appearance on Hannity on Fox.

“Obviously we had assurances that it was going to be straight-up finance, which is what they do every day, and what was delivered was just nothing but a crap sandwich,” said Priebus.

 

 

Priebus was picking up on the outrage of some of the party’s presidential candidates at the questioning they endured at the CNBC debate.

Most memorably, there was this from Ted Cruz, in answer to a question from CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla.

CRUZ: You know, let me say something at the outset. The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media.

[APPLAUSE]

This is not a cage match. And if you look at the questions: Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?

How about talking about the substantive issues —

[APPLAUSE]

… and, Carl, I’m not finished yet. The contrast with the Democratic debate, where every fawning question from the media was, `Which of you is more handsome and wise?’ And let me be clear —

CARL: You have 30 seconds left to answer, should you choose to do so.

CRUZ: Let me be clear. The men and women on this stage have more ideas, more experience, more common sense than every participant in the Democratic debate. That debate reflected a debate between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.

And nobody watching at home believes that any of the moderators have any intention of voting in a Republican primary. The questions that are being asked shouldn’t be trying to get people to tear into each other. It should be what are your substantive —

It was probably the best received answer of the whole debate – with the live debate audience, with pundits rating the debate performances, with Frank Luntz’s focus group  – and apparently also with Cruz donors, who contributed $1,125,978 in the first 22 hours after the debate.

And, what was the ridiculous, insulting, out-of-bounds question that set Cruz off.

QUINTANILLA: Senator Cruz, 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 another Washington-created crisis is on the way.

Does your opposition to it show that you’re not the kind of problem-solver American voters want?

Hmm. Well, that actually seems a pretty good and fair question.

It’s the question that every Democratic colleague in the U.S. Senate, and almost all of Cruz’s Republicans Senate colleagues – including his Texas colleague John Cornyn – have about Cruz.

It’s the question that House Speaker John Boehner – who has called Cruz a “jackass” – has about Cruz.

It is the question that before long, Boehner’s successor, Paul Ryan, will probably have about Cruz.

It’s kind of the fundamental question that Cruz is going to have to answer to get elected president: How is it that he is right and virtually everybody else is wrong, and how is he going to make that work as president?

Actually, it’s a question that Cruz would ordinarily love to get – so that he could tee off on how the leadership of his party and at least some of his presidential rivals are “campaign conservatives,” who talk a good game when they want your vote, but are all about surrendering to the “Washington cartel” once they get elected, while he is the real deal “courageous conservative.”

The only reason he didn’t tee off on it, I think, is that he saw an even riper target in an assault on the media in which he could appear to be defending not just himself, but all the other Republicans on the stage.

But what were the other questions that outraged him?

Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain?

Well, here is the start of the actual exchange between CNBC questioner John Harwood and Trump.

JOHN HARWOOD: Mr. Trump, you’ve done very well on this campaign so far by promising to build a wall and make another country pay for it.

TRUMP: Right.

JOHN: Send 11 million people out of the country, cut taxes $10 trillion without increasing the deficit.

TRUMP: Right.

JOHN: And make Americans better off because your greatness would replace the stupidity and incompetence of others.

TRUMP: That’s right.

JOHN: Let’s be honest. Is this a comic book version of a Presidential campaign?

TRUMP: It’s not a comic book, and it’s not a very nicely asked question, the way you say that.

Well, I agree it’s not very nicely asked – and needlessly so.

But it’s not all that different than what Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina – really just about everyone but Cruz and Carson  – have said about Trump.

OK. Back to Cruz’s litany of unfair questions.

Ben Carson, can you do math?

Well, this was an attempt to pin down Carson, who after all is a political neophyte, on whether his tax and budget numbers add up. That seems fair.

Indeed, the instant that Carson finished answering what Cruz would a few minutes later describe as an unfair “gotcha” question, Cruz jumped in to say:

 If you want a 10 percent flat tax where the numbers add up, I rolled out my tax plan today. You can find it online at tedcruz.org.

Next.

John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?

Here was the pertinent exchange between Harwood and Kasich.

HARWOOD: Well, let’s just get more pointed about it. You said yesterday that you were hearing proposals that were just crazy from your colleagues. Who were you talking about?

KASICH: Yeah. Well, I mean right here, to talk about we’re just going to have a 10 percent pie, and that’s how we’re going to fund the government? And we’re going to just fix everything with waste, fraud, and abuse? Or that we’re just going to be great. Or we’re going to ship 10 million Americans — or 10 million people out of this country, leaving their children here in this country and dividing families?

Folks, we’ve got to wake up. We cannot elect somebody that doesn’t know how to do the job. You’ve got to pick somebody who has experience, somebody that has the know-how, the discipline.

So, Kasich was suggesting that his party was in danger of electing  somebody that doesn’t know how to do the job – it was the central point he wanted to make at the debate, and why shouldn’t he be asked who he was talking about?

Next.

Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?

Well, a major paper in the senator’s home state had just called on him to resign because he was missing so many Senate votes, and Bush sought to make some hay out of the issue.

And finally,  Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?

Here was what Harwood said to Bush.

Governor, the fact that you’re at the fifth lectern tonight shows how far your stock has fallen in this race, despite the big investment your donors have made. You noted recently after slashing your payroll that you had better things to do than sit around and be demonized by other people.

But that was also pretty much the gist of Rubio’s reply to Bush, when he joined in criticizing him for missing votes – that Bush was panicking because his campaign is lagging.

RUBIO: The only reason why you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.

As for what Cruz referred to as the “fawning questions,” Democrats were served up a their CNN debate, here was Anderson Cooper’s opening question to Hillary Clinton.

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, I want to start with you. Plenty of politicians evolve on issues, but even some Democrats believe you change your positions based on political expediency. You were against same-sex marriage. Now you’re for it. You defended President Obama’s immigration policies. Now you say they’re too harsh. You supported his trade deal dozen of times. You even called it the “gold standard”. Now, suddenly, last week, you’re against it. Will you say anything to get elected?

And here was his initial offering to Bernie Sanders.

COOPER: Senator Sanders. A Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House. You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?

And the follow-up:

 The question is really about electability here, and that’s what I’m trying to get at. You — the — the Republican attack ad against you in a general election — it writes itself. You supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. You honeymooned in the Soviet Union. And just this weekend, you said you’re not a capitalist. Doesn’t — doesn’t that ad write itself?

Now, truth to tell, I thought CNBC did a pretty bad job with the debate, but not because the questions had a liberal bias.

The Fox panel at the first Republican debate was at least as tough in their quetions, but the Cruz line of attack wouldn’t have worked against Fox.

To me, CNBC  just came across as a second-string cable network.

 

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For example, asking the candidates to each describe a weakness about themselves is a colossal waste of time.

At the undercard debate, Quintanilla asked whether the day after the Super Bowl should be a national holiday.

There is a also a little pot calling the kettle black about Quintanilla critiquing Rubio as a young man in too much of a hurry. Maybe Walter Cronkite could have pulled that off, but not the at-least-as-boyish-as-Rubio Quintanilla.

And the low point came when Trump flatly denied Becky Quick’s assertion that he had criticized Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg on immigration. Quick apologized even though she had him dead to rights.

QUICK:  Where did I read this and come up with this that you’re —

TRUMP: Probably — I don’t know. You people write this stuff. I don’t know where you …

Ay yi yi.

Also, there among the presumably hostile questioners – albeit briefly – was  CNBC’s Rick Santelli, who threw Cruz a softball that allowed him to talk about auditing the Fed and going back to the gold standard.

Who is Rick Santelli?

From Steven Perlberg at Business Insider.”

“A lot of people have been credited with starting the modern-day tea party but make no mistake, it was Rick Santelli,” Glenn Beck told Business Insider in an email. “His off the cuff monologue spoke the words that millions of Americans felt but could not nor dare not speak.”

Five years ago on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, CNBC’s Rick Santelli bellowed what would later become his most famous rant ever.

Which is saying something if you’ve ever watched CNBC, where Santelli has reigned as de facto ranter-in-chief since 1999.

As a result of the complaints about CNBC, Ashley Parker of the New York Times reported:

In a meeting here Sunday evening following the fallout from last week’s CNBC debate — in which the campaigns blamed both the Republican National Committee and the television network for what they said was an unfair debate — representatives of most of the campaigns met to discuss how to exert more influence over the process.

They emerged with a modest list of demands, including opening and closing statements of at least 30 seconds; “parity and integrity” on questions, meaning that all candidates would receive similarly substantive questions; no so-called lightning rounds; and approval of any graphics that are aired during the debate.

The campaign representatives also moved to take the Republican National Committee out of the debate negotiating process, calling for the campaigns to negotiate directly with the TV networks over format, and to receive information about the rules and criteria at least 30 days before each debate.

xxxxxxx

In an attempt at damage control on Friday, the R.N.C. suspended a Feb. 26 debate scheduled to be hosted by NBC News and the NBC-owned, Spanish-language network Telemundo. And on Sunday, shortly before the meeting, the committee shook up its debate staff by assigning Sean Cairncross, its chief operating officer and former chief counsel, to take the lead in negotiating with the networks.

In the meantime, Cruz, on Hannity, had his own recommendation.

 

 

CRUZ: Well, Sean, look, we’ve seen now over and over again where the media, they are the Democrats’ cheerleaders. And in these debates the media tries — every question is an insult, every question is an attack, every question is asking one Republican to attack another Republican. You know, they don’t do that to the Democrats. The Democrats, they give them each a chance to talk about what they believe in.

And I’ve got to say, Sean, one of the most ridiculous things, why is it where we keep having debates where the moderators, no one in the right mind thinks any of the moderators actually will vote in a Republican primary. In my view, Republican primary debates ought to be moderated by people who would vote at a primary. How about a debate moderated by Sean Hannity and Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh? Now, that would be a debate.  But instead —

HANNITY: I’m in. And I think I can speak for the other two, they’re in as well.

And I do agree with you, because these questions are downright hostile. And I believe this was a horrible night for the news media. And I will say in many cases, in many instances tonight a disgrace to the, quote, “profession of journalism.” This is a serious issue.

CRUZ: And the reason is the moderators and the networks don’t want the American people to vote for any of the 10 men and women on that stage.  They want to beat up whoever the Republican nominee is, and then they want people either to stay home or vote for Hillary.

And then, over the weekend in Iowa, from the New York Times:

Mr. Cruz offered what he called a “radical” proposal: “How about if we say from now on if you have never voted in a Republican primary in your life you don’t get to moderate a Republican primary debate.”

 

Well, the next thing you know, the Democrats will be demanding that their next debate has to be on MSNBC – or, what Cruz would call the Bolsheviks to CNBC’s Mensheviks – presided over by Comrade Maddow.

Oh, oops.

Rachel Maddow to moderate Democratic candidates forum

Rachel Maddow announces that she has been selected to moderate the First in the South Candidates Forum with Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley, to be held in South Carolina on November 6th, co-sponsored by the Democratic Parties of 13 southern states.

 

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In any case, after the CNBC debate I asked some professors of political science and communication who I regularly talk to, and asked them for their take on the CNBC debate and particularly my concern that they tend to reward the most sweeping and confident answer with little regard to whether the answer bears any relation to the truth.

Here is some of what they told me.

Kirby Goidel, a professor and fellow in the Public Policy Research Institute and the Department of Communication at Texas A & M.

I don’t think there is any question that they are almost always won on style rather than substance. Debates are won with sound bites, a single great line, or they are lost because of a gaffe. Appearing uninformed is a major problem. Confidently stating misinformation typically is not – unless the candidate has the decency to back away from the statement. If they double down, blame the media and their enemies, they can typically survive being misinformed. 
This is why I am not convinced fact checkers make much of a difference as facts appear to matter less than “truthiness.”
I am surprised at how bad the moderators were, especially when asking factual questions. As soon as a candidate said, “no, that’s not right,” they backed down. The best example was Carson on Mannatech. That may come back to haunt him but if you are asking a question like that shouldn’t you be certain of the facts first? More generally, I think the television need for drama and conflict keeps them from asking good, issue-based questions. It also allows them to be an easy scapegoat when candidates don’t want to answer. 

Cal Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.

Primary debates, where all of the candidates from the same party and share many policy positions, tend to be more free form, won by the great one-liner, than by even a general description of a well thought out policy point. General election debates, where the nominees of the two parties have real policy differences, tend to focus more on those policy differences. 

I do think that the proliferation of debates and their movement to the cable channels have cheapened the debates. In distant memory, when Walter Cronkite or John Chancellor, nationally known and respected journalists, asked candidates a question they damn sure had to answer them. In the recent CNBC debate, John Harwood was the only journalist with anything like a national reputation, and when Jim Cramer and Rick Santelli came on you might as well have cued the calliope music.

There are also different kinds of candidates. Jeb Bush has trouble winging it and John Kasich is increasingly aggravated by the lack of serious policy discussion. Trump, Carson, and Fiorina just don’t have the policy depth to be serious, and Cruz is focused on a constituency so alienated that all the want to hear is attack. Rubio is an excellent, very quick-witted, very articulate, debater and a bit more grounded than Cruz, so that is why people talk about him as a candidate able to bridge the divide between the establishment and populist wings of the Republican Party.

Brandon Rottinghaus, University of Houston political scientist.

*  It’s usually performance over substance in these early debates.  A memorable line, even if half true or untrue, hits the mark better than a notable policy point.  This is especially true in a crowded field where there isn’t enough time or interest to correct the record on every infraction, major or minor. 

*  At this point in the race, debates are used to preview new stump lines and play to base constituencies.  Arguments made in debates don’t have to be true to achieve the campaigns’ objectives. 

*  Any missteps or misstatements made by the candidates are cleaned up in the spin room afterwards.  This gives candidates a safety net to be more outrageous as an attempt to stand out from the crowd.  This also provides no sanction to being wrong in the debate since the record can afterwards be clarified. 

*  Once the nominees are set and the parties settle into their issue profiles, the debates will be come more substantive and less theatrical.  The irony is that at that point they will be less impactful and probably less watched than the carnival the early debates have become. 

* I found the backlash against CNBC interesting.  Part of these debates are about showing off intangible personality traits – humor, passion, pride. The CNBC debates were light on substance and modest on order but produced some memorable moments.  What the audience lost on policy substance, they gained in seeing a more nuanced side of the candidates. 

*  I debated in college too – not nearly as good as Cruz though. I did a different style.  Parliamentary debate, what Cruz did at Princeton, is highlighted by spontaneity, humor and inability to quote evidence.  Clearly good training for the thrust and parry of presidential debates. 

(note: From the American Parliamentary Debate Association’s Guide to Parliamentary Debate, “Parliamentary debate does not allow evidence.”)

Josh Scacco. Purdue University professor of media theory and politics in the Brian Lamb School of Communication.

One of the big issues is that the format, including 60-second responses and 30-second rebuttals, does not allow for a full interrogation of policy issues. It allows for a rehearsal of talking points. By the time a moderator can respond to the generalness of a talking point, the message or misinformation has been delivered.

The network moderators and fact checkers then are left with clean-up, but by that point the damage has been done. The CNBC moderators did themselves no favors by lacking the information to back up their questions or simply apologizing for a particular line of inquiry.

Although much criticism has been leveled at the questions themselves, provocative questions are the hallmark of debates. It was the 1988 debate where respected journalist Bernard Shaw asked death penalty opponent Michael Dukakis how he would respond to the rape and murder of his wife. Other questions seem small in comparison to this moment.

The second big issue, and you have begun to see this increasingly more as the information environment has fragmented, is that political candidates campaign in self-selected information echo chambers. They hear supportive citizen, strategist, and media messages that rarely contradict established thinking.

When a debate moderator brings up a contrary point or criticism, as is the job of a debate moderator, the first inclination for the candidates is to argue about the veracity of the source as opposed to the premise of the question. Therefore, the actual debate never gets to the finer points of a candidate’s economic plan, but only to whether a source is biased or not.

Luckily for the candidates, their most partisan supporters also live in political information bubbles and are less likely to hear contrary information compared to less partisan and interested individuals. In many ways, the rewards for misinformation outweigh the costs for candidates running in primaries. News media may cover candidate misinformation, but their most ardent supporters probably are selectively tuning out the information or watching something else altogether.

I cannot definitively say that style is rewarded over substance in modern elections.

Voters assess, often without realizing it, the character of individuals using small bits of information that become representative of larger traits. Debates are excellent moments for character assessments, including calmness in the face of adversity, ability to think quickly, and the formation of complex policies into simple, understandable statements. Former Governor Perry’s debate “oops” was not frowned upon because he forgot something, which we all tend to do, but more so because it reflected larger questions about his intelligence and general engagement with important policy details.

For all of their warts, debates have benefits for voters. They engage them around the election and are often the highest encountered campaign-related events. Debates also help voters learn about candidate positions, and particularly lesser known candidates.

David Redlawsk. Rutgers University professor of political science, who is a fellow this semester at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa He did a debate watch Wednesday with Drake students.

What was interesting about the students watching the third debate – and very different from the group of non-student Iowans I saw watch the second debate – was that they were very interested initially, but began to lose interest as things got contentious. They were there to actually learn about the candidates, but the meta-debate between the candidates and the moderators didn’t seem useful to them. The group I watched with for the second debate was engaged and followed it pretty intently all the way through.

As for the issues of truth and media bashing … because media and pundits tend to give an immediate win-loss assessment, the truth probably doesn’t matter all that much these days. Candidates may later be forced to confront misstatements they made, but by then it probably doesn’t matter as much as the immediate reaction that they are looking for does.

Still, I don’t think candidates can get away with anything and everything. While immediate pundit/media commentary seems to determine win/lose based more on style and zingers than substance, it’s not completely so. After the second debate, for example, I seem to recall a lot of commentary about how vacuous Ben Carson’s responses were.

Still, in the end,  I am more optimistic than pessimistic about voters. While they certainly can be influenced by things you and I would consider trivial to the job of president, they also do for the most part pay some attention to issues and at least in my research with Rick Lau, seem to get it right more than they get it wrong. That is, they settle on the candidate who best represents their interests based on what they (the voters) care about. This is not to say voters cannot be misled, or cannot be influenced to care about things that you and I would objectively say are less important. But if the Republican Party nominated Trump or Carson it really will be because one of them better connects to what those voters care about at this time.

I should also add that I am a fan of negative campaigning as one way in which candidate lies can be challenged. We know voters are not all that trusting of the press, which limits the press’s ability to correct the record. But opponents can (and do) correct the record as well, and that can be effective, as Kyle Mattes and I discuss in our book The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning.

 

 

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