The Republican candidates took a number of swipes at the moderators of Wednesday night’s debate on CNBC for their supposedly biased and substance-free questions. They were picking the lowest of low-hanging fruit, going for an easy way to endear themselves to a conservative audience. Texas Senator Ted Cruz probably got the biggest round of applause of the evening when he said, “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media.” And the crowd really went nuts when he added that “every fawning question” asked of the Democratic candidates during their October 13 debate on CNN amounted to, “Which of you is more handsome and why?” After the show, Donald Trump echoed that sentiment, musing that perhaps the Democrats had somehow “negotiated a better deal” with CNN.
Judging by conservative reactions on social media, it’s now become an article of faith that, while the CNBC moderators were out for blood, CNN’s moderators had “lobbed softball questions” at the Democrats. After Wednesday’s debate, Ben Carson’s campaign called for a “revolt” against… someone, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Prebius was forced to issue a statement that read: “The performance by the CNBC moderators was extremely disappointing and did a disservice to their network, our candidates, and voters.”
But it’s not true that the Democrats were given an easy ride. Here’s the very first question Anderson Cooper posed to Hillary Clinton during the Democratic debate:
“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?”
As questions go, that was more dagger than softball. After Clinton claimed that her positions had been consistent, Cooper followed up:
“Secretary Clinton, though, with all due respect, the question is really about political expediency. Just in July, New Hampshire, you told the crowd you’d, quote, ‘take a back seat to no one when it comes to progressive values.’
“Last month in Ohio, you said you plead guilty to, quote, ‘being kind of moderate and center.’ Do you change your political identity based on who you’re talking to?”
Later, Cooper asked her about e-mail-gate: “For the last eight months, you haven’t been able to put this issue behind you. You dismissed it; you joked about it; you called it a mistake. What does that say about your ability to handle far more challenging crises as president?”
Contrast that with the question that set off Ted Cruz’s rant:
“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 crisis is on the way.
“Does your opposition to it show that you’re not the kind of problem-solver American voters want?”
In response to that substantive question about an issue a lot of people care about, Cruz used up his entire time lamenting that they weren’t “talking about the substantive issues people care about,” and didn’t bother to answer.
In the Democratic debate, Cooper homed in on what many see as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s Achilles heel: “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?”
After Sanders talked briefly about inequality and universal healthcare, Cooper followed up with this “softball”:
“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?”
On Wednesday night, Florida Senator Marco Rubio accused moderator Carl Quintanilla of reciting “a litany of discredited attacks from Democrats and my political opponents” as he dodged a question about some of his well-publicized financial management problems.
It was a tough question, but no tougher than this question to Jim Webb during the October 13 debate: “Senator Webb, in 2006, you called affirmative action ‘state-sponsored racism.’ In 2010, you wrote an op/ed saying it discriminates against whites. Given that nearly half the Democratic Party is non-white, aren’t you out of step with where the Democratic Party is now?”
I could go on. Sanders, who had a high-profile clash with Black Lives Matter activists earlier in the campaign was asked, “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?” Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley was forced to defend the “zero tolerance” police policies he pushed as mayor of Baltimore. Anderson Cooper came close to demanding to know what former Republican Lincoln Chaffee was even doing on the stage.
All of these questions probed the candidates’ greatest perceived weaknesses. The CNBC moderators did the same thing Wednesday night when they asked Carly Fiorina about her disastrous stint at Hewlett-Packard. It’s what moderators should do.
But the tough questions that marked the Democratic debate were immediately forgotten when the Republican candidates started working the referees with cries of media bias. Which might be expected, given that it reinforced one of the most enduring conspiracy theories in American politics: that members of the media–like academics and scientists–are hopelessly biased against Republicans.
It’s true that mainstream journalists, like all humans, have various biases. But it’s a big group, with diverse and complex biases. How they tend to help or hinder the two major parties on specific issues can make for hours of interesting debate. But the simplistic narrative that the media are in the tank for Democrats doesn’t. It just dumbs down the discourse and convinces Republican voters that their candidates’ facile charges that all of society’s ills are the fault of the federal government might seem sensible if not for the media’s pernicious influence. In that view, conservatism can never fail—it can only be failed by poor messengers and a tilted playing field.
Repeatedly calling out the moderators for their ostensible bias might have offered some tasty red meat for the base, but as John Nichols put it, for everyone else it made for “an empty night of whining about the media, petty squabbling, and lost opportunities for the Republicans who would be president.”