Republican Debate: Raucous Anti-Media Rumble

GOP debate in Boulder Colorado 2016

Image courtesy of CNBC

Republican Debate: Raucous Anti-Media Rumble

| published October 29, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor


The top 11 Republican contenders for President all went into Wednesday night’s debate looking to break out of what remains a crowded field. Moderators for CNBC went into the debate looking to spur fights and seeking to throw fuel on an already contentious nomination battle.

And though some of the debate did involve candidates sparring with each other, the forum quickly turned into a brutal, no-holds-barred cage match where reporters and moderators found themselves on the receiving end of the hardest punches, blows and kicks.

With the critical Iowa caucuses now only months away, the debate turned wild in places as candidates sought to channel energy or grab the attention of viewers. For some candidates the forum was make-or-break.  Notable among the disappointments: Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who missed an opportunity to pull himself back to the top of the pack when a jab intended to bloody Marco Rubio backfired, perhaps damaging Bush's comeback chances.

Ben Carson entered the room in Boulder, Colorado the newly christened front runner, having become the first GOP candidate in more than 90 days to nudge past former front-runner Donald Trump in several major national polls. Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and best-selling author, withstood the scrutiny and pressure of his newfound role as leader; by the end of the night the soft-spoken candidate had not landed any knock-out punches, but also not sustained any as well.

For Carson, the evening produced no surprises, nor any opportunity to break out further from the pack. Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina sought to spark a campaign—once in rapid ascendancy—which many analysts suggest has recently gone flat. Other candidates, like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, sought to remain relevant in a field still dominated by the outsiders—Trump, Carson and Fiorina, none of whom have ever held elective office.

Though immediate polls are not readily available, Carson may come out of the debate able to maintain his slight lead over his closest rival, businessman and real estate mogul Trump.

But many other candidates on the stage used the debate format—agreed upon ahead of time by the Republican National Committee, CNBC negotiators, and the candidates themselves—to hammer CNBC moderators, slamming them hard on what some candidates called a deep and systemic bias among the mainstream media.

Often taking turns, and often interrupting or talking over the moderators, the candidates used the freewheeling venue to bash television media and print reporters for a prevailing pro-Democratic bias. Candidates also frequently turned some of the most contentious questions around, tossing the onus back onto the moderators and challenging them on the facts upon which questions were framed. None of the moderators was spared from counterattack.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, taking issue early in the debate with a South Florida Sun-Sentinel editorial published earlier the same day, blasted the newspaper as hypocritical.

“I read that editorial today with great amusement,” Rubio said, “and it’s actually evidence of the bias that exists in the American media.”

This week, the Sun-Sentinel had called for Rubio to resign immediately from the Senate, suggesting his attendance record—suffering while he campaigns for President—is dismal. Rubio has missed about 70 votes in the current Senate session. But Rubio fired back, and with ferocity. Rubio said that the same newspaper turned a blind eye toward other Senators with poor attendance and frequently-missed votes. Citing the low percentages of votes by former Florida Senator Bob Graham, Senator John Kerry, and Senator Barack Obama—all of whom missed between 60% and 70% of Senate votes, Rubio insisted that the editorial was a bald political stunt, reflecting little about Rubio’s skills and everything about the newspaper’s liberal tilt. The Sun-Sentinel, Rubio said, went on to endorse John Kerry and Barack Obama, despite their attendance records as U.S. Senators.

“This is another example,” Rubio declared. “of the double-standard that exists in this country between the mainstream media and the conservative movement.”

Texas Senator Ted Cruz also blasted reporters and moderators after CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla challenged Cruz on his fierce stand on the so-called debt ceiling.

“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate,” Cruz said, “illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match.”

Cruz quickly listed his paraphrasing of some of the previous dozen or questions posed, including those harsh lines of inquiry tossed at Trump, Rubio, Carson, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and others.

“How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?” Cruz demanded as the audience erupted in wild applause which lasted even over Quintanilla’s attempts to redirect. But Cruz had more.

“The contrast with the Democratic debate,” Cruz said, “in which every fawning question was ‘which is you is more handsome and wise?’ That debate reflected a debate between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.” Cruz did not immediately offer a response to Quintanilla’s original question about the debt ceiling and a potential government shutdown. Cruz has been vocal in his opposition to a deal brokered between the White House and Congress to raise the debt ceiling to allow for spending through March of 2017.

Grilled about her record as CEO of Hewlett Packard by CNBC’s Becky Quick, and challenged that in her tenure as HP’s top officer the value of the company fell, Fiorina also hit back hard, stressing that during the Great Recession hundreds of big companies lost value—billions, in fact. When Fiorina left HP, its stock was worth about half of what it was when she took over as CEO. Fiorina also noted that the NASDAQ dropped by some 80%, requiring a long, sometimes shaky process of recovery which has taken a decade to come to fruition.

“I will run on my record all day long,” Fiorina declared, pointing out that as a CEO, she was held to an accountability standard that is never applied to elected officials and politicians. “If I misrepresented those results or projections in any way, I was held criminally liable. Imagine if a politician were held to that same standard of account?”

Furthermore, Fiorina said, her skills as an outsider helped her unravel and fix a bloated, inefficient company and return it to profitability, even at a time when other technology companies—like Gateway—were failing and adding to the unemployment rolls.

“Yes, I was fired, over a disagreement in the boardroom,” Fiorina declared, “…there are politics in the boardroom as well, and yet—the man who led my firing, Tom Perkins, an icon of Silicon Valley—has come out publicly and said ‘you know what, we were wrong, she was right, she was a great CEO, she would make a great President of the United States.’”

Carson, too, had words to say about media distortions, and especially the tendency by the press to enforce politically-correct interpretations as defined by liberals. Using Carson’s statements regarding same-sex marriage—which he opposes—Quintanilla asked the neurosurgeon why he would maintain a relationship with the retail giant Costco, rated by several political and business services as the most gay-friendly company in American. Carson, who serves on the board of directors of Costco, stated that the two issues were not the same, and suggested the stirring them together was a manipulation of the facts.

“Why would you serve on a company whose policies seem to run counter to your views on homosexuality?” the CNBC host asked.

“Well, obviously you don’t understand my views on homosexuality,” Carson said, “I believe that our constitution protects everybody…regardless of their sexual orientation or any other aspect. I also believe that marriage is between one man and one woman. One shouldn’t automatically assume that because you believe that a marriage is between one man and one woman, that you are a homophobe.”

Carson went on.

“This is one of the myths that the left perpetrates on our society. This is how they frighten people and get people to shut up. That’s what the PC culture is all about, and it’s destroying this nation. The fact is, that we the people of the nation are not each other’s enemies. It’s those people who are trying to divide us that are our real enemies, and we need to make that clear to everybody.”

When Becky Quick sought to pin down Trump on recent comments critical of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in which Trump took issue with Zuckerberg’s immigration views, Trump sharply cut her off, declaring that he had no issue with Zuckerberg’s views. When Quick asked with a semi-rhetorical flourish where she would have come up with the quote, Trump blasted her.

“I don’t know…you people write this stuff…I don’t know where you come up with it,” Trump said as the room exploded with laughter. Trump then launched into an attack not only on the media but also Super PACs, which he said are also contributing to a distortion of the political process. The Super PAC sidebar gave Rubio another chance to pound reporters, journalists and editors.

“The Democrats have the ultimate Super PAC,” Rubio said, “and it’s called the mainstream media.” The comment drew a roar of approval from those attending the debate. But Rubio had more.

“Last week, Hillary Clinton went before a committee,” Rubio explained, “and…she admitted…she sent emails to her family saying, hey, ‘this attack in Benghazi was caused by al Qaeda-like elements.’ But yet she spent a week telling the families of those victims and the American people that [the attack] was because of a video. Yet, the mainstream media is going around claiming last week was the greatest week in Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But…it was the week in which she got exposed as a liar. But she has her Super PAC helping her out—the American mainstream media.”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie berated and browbeat the moderators for introducing “fantasy football” as an issue worthy of discussion on the candidates’ platform, suggesting that the sports betting business was hardly worth debate when the country faces so many serious problems and challenges.

Almost all the candidates on the stage took at least one shot at the media, in some cases, pounding reporters and journalists hard for distortions of the facts and for seeking to attract television ratings by making the debates and the discussions into combative spectacles. Though the early quarter of the debate sparked intense fireworks between some combatants—such as a testy exchange between Bush and Rubio over Rubio’s Senate attendance record—by the time the debate had concluded its first 30 minutes, the candidates were more often than not in agreement with each other on many key points, and in several notable instances seemed in total agreement that their common enemy was the media.

For several candidates, it was a good night. Cruz, Carson, Rubio, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie all scored big points from the live audience and on social media when they took turns lashing out at what was often described during the night as the liberal press or the mainstream media. But for other candidates, especially those who needed the opportunity to break out, it was not a good night. Bush, once the presumptive front runner, offered an unexciting performance which may have done no immediate damage. But Bush could soon suffer by default if either Rubio or Cruz continue to gain traction in the polls. Kasich, too, fell somewhat short of what was needed to keep him relevant in the crowded field.

Most interestingly, though Donald Trump delivered several memorable lines, he was characteristically thin on policy specifics, and the real estate mogul often stood motionless or in silence as others bantered, counter-attacked, or attempted to inject themselves into the policy discussions. Even as a more subdued Trump kept his insults and barbs to a minimum, his occasional freewheeling moments are unlikely to produce any renewed energy for his campaign, which has been in a slow but steady state of decline in the polls for weeks.

Meanwhile, Carson hopes to maintain his status as front-runner.

A CBS News/New York Times poll of likely Republican voters this week reflected the same trend shown in other recent polls, with Carson steadily slipping past Trump as the front-runner. Those same polls show Rubio gaining—slightly—and now in third place in some surveys. Cruz, Fiorina and Bush, according to the CBS News/New York Times polls, are hovering in fourth, fifth and sixth place respectively, with Bush sliding down ever-so-slightly into sixth.

Bush, especially, is now at a critical point in his campaign. With his poll numbers sagging, Bush must somehow convince those early and large donors that their investment in his campaign was not wasted. Bush was not only an early front runner in the race, garnering support of some 20% of Republicans in a field already crowded by the start of 2015, but was also the fundraising leader by far, channeling the cash of many GOP supporters and conservative heavy-hitters.

But the former Florida Governor has seen a steady decline ever since the arrival of Trump and the sudden surge of popularity among the non-traditional and insurgent candidates. Last week Bush reorganized his campaign—reducing salaries, cutting back on expenses, and redirecting resources and volunteers into the critical early states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Bush is also campaigning hard in the Sunshine State in an attempt to blunt Rubio’s steady surge.

Bush may suffer as the next few days news-feeds treat him harshly over his lackluster debate showing. By contrast, Rubio—his closest competitor for the heart of the “traditional” wing of the party—may have used the confrontation over missed Senate votes to his advantage, effectively diffusing an issue which has begun to pose a genuine threat to his narrative.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Trump: Polls, Can’t Live With ‘Em, Can’t Live Without ‘Em; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; October 25, 2015.

Bush Vs. Rubio: Cash and Spending Feud; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; October 18, 2015.