The headlines from the CNBC debate on Wednesday night:
- Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz advanced their causes.
- Donald Trump is growing more palatable and credible as a possible candidate.
- The mystery of why Ben Carson is leading everyone else intensifies.
- Jeb Bush’s candidacy has just been transferred to the ICU.
- CNBC did what no one at CNN has been able to accomplish in years: it made CNN look like a first rate news service.
Let’s start with an interesting but rather subtle shift seemed to occur in the Republican debate on Wednesday night. For different reasons, the ten candidates on the stage seemed to come into a sudden alignment on exactly who the enemy is. And, no, it actually is not Hillary Clinton or her pinko sidekick from Back to the Future.
In this debate, every candidate coalesced around the idea that the single most evil, incompetent, wasteful, dishonest, lying, stealing, cheating, and – worst of all -- regulating organization in the world is the one that they are all competing ferociously to lead.
The enemy Wednesday night was the Federal Government. The neat trick about this new definition of the enemy is that it could be the long-sought Republican “Big Tent” that can unite the fraying party factions. It’s an obvious platform for outsiders Trump, Carson and Fiorina. It works great for states’ rights governors Kasich, Huckabee, Jindal, and Christie. It allows senators Rubio, Paul, Cruz and Graham to bash the very institution they work for – and even its Republican leadership. Dear heaven, it was even lovingly embraced by Jeb Bush, whose brother and father actually led the federal government for 12 out of the last 27 years!
Nothing the Federal government does could not be done better by the states or by the private sector. Nothing. Period. The Federal government creates problems and then exacerbates them when it tries to fix them (Fiorina). The Federal government steals your money and lies about it (Christie) to a degree that is actually worse than Bernie Madoff (Huckabee). The Federal government solves every problem by spending more (Cruz). Federal regulations always add cost that burdens poor and middle income families (Carson). The Federal government is incompetent at everything it does (everybody). The evening was neatly tied together by Rand Paul, whose ideal government was “so small that you can’t see it.”
Sure, the Democrats are worse than the Republicans on this, they mentioned, but the real theme of the evening was that the Federal government is a bi-partisan catastrophe, an out-of-control spending machine that is the fault of everyone and everybody who touches it.
Let’s state this a different, and perhaps more telling, way.
Every single candidate has now finally figured out that Trump, Carson, and Fiorina are not Republicans at all. They are pure-play outsiders who are winning on the antipathy that Americans feel toward the dysfunction of government. And so the actual Republicans on the stage spent most of the evening trying to each establish their own personal brands of renegade, anti-government outsider-hood.
And here is the real zinger.
The two guys who made the most progress last night were two guys who are actually on the Federal Government payroll.
So who won and who lost in this evolving world-view?
Marco Rubio made enormous strides in this debate. He continues to be charismatic, polished, extremely well prepared and deft on his feet. He demonstrated command over some of the evening’s more arcane fiscal policy scrums (hey, I thought “H One B” was a virus!). He neatly pivoted on Jeb Bush’s pathetic attack on Rubio’s recent confession to Senatorial ennui, turning it into a generational clarion call for change. Deftly, he alone found a way to insert the word “Benghazi” into a debate on economics, which is wired to automatically light up the “applause” sign in all Republican venues. And he thought up a new way to vilify the left-leaning-eastern-elite-establishment-lame-stream media, introducing the notion that it should be viewed a mammoth Super Pac for the Democratic Party. But, please: if Republicans castigate CNBC as leftist leaning, those socialists over at the Wall Street Journal must be next. Bottom line: give the Beaver an A-.
The Cruz missiles were flying at this debate, as the self-pleasuring master-debater rocked the house repeatedly over the course of the evening. It was newsworthy that Cruz seemed to be doubling down on his vicious attacks on his own party’s congressional leaders, given that the Freedom Caucus had so recently blinked – and blinked hard – in capitulating to Paul Ryan’s ransom note. But give Ted Cruz his due: he brilliantly ticked off the five first “gotcha” questions from the CNBC moderators and blasted them for their bias and lack of respect for the candidates.
And you know what? He was right. John Harwood is a first class journalist, but his opening question to Donald Trump – essentially asking him if his campaign was a joke – set the evening off in a foolishly contentious path from which CNBC will not recover soon.
Admit it, lefty, Donald Trump is getting better at this, rapidly. Consider that just a few short months ago that Republican Party cognoscenti were privately purring that Donald Trump was the perfect crazy extremist foil – Cheryl Bachman turned on overdrive -- to serve the purpose of bringing the party to its senses and causing it to embrace Jeb Bush as the sane and sensible centrist who could unite the party and win. Now, Ben Carson has usurped that role and is making the GOP embrace Donald Trump as the sane and sensible centrist who could unite the party and win. Harwood’s opening question had the amazing effect of making the audience sympathetic to Trump, and The Donald pounced. He had a good evening, with a strong finish – trumpeting how he had used his genius for negotiation to force CNBC to shorten the debate to two hours. And, in limiting CNBC to two hours, everyone in the world agreed that Donald had performed an invaluable service to humanity.
Someday, the world will figure out that Dr. Carson is Yoda gone to the dark side, an intentionally mysterious man whose sotto-voce affectation, heavy eyelids, and enigmatic riddle-speak are apparently soothing to Bible-toting social conservatives who just want someone who will unequivocally say that the Christian God is in the pilot seat. Ben Carson says crazy things out loud. We know it all: Obamacare is slavery, that the United States can be compared to Nazi Germany, and that the Holocaust would not have happened if the Jews thought like the NRA. But Carson as carcinogen was not on display in Colorado; the focus on fiscal issues kept the conversation away from the most incendiary of his topics. He was his usually fuzzy-illogic; muddling through answers and always meandering to his mantra, “and that’s why the United States is by the people for the people and of the people.” The physics of inertia worked in his favor; though… nothing he did damaged him. He will emerge from this debate with generally unchanged polling numbers.
The Losers: Everybody else.
It seems like it is still early in the campaign, but wet cement dries quickly. Repeated failures to generate excitement and momentum gradually turn into hardened images of ineffectuality. Chris Christie had his debate moments, but he is clearly losing the “angry centrist governor” battle to Kasich. Carly Fiorina is losing the “proven CEO” battle to Trump. Mike Huckabee is losing the evangelical battle to Cruz. And I find it hard to imagine how this debate would have been the slightest bit different had Rand Paul spent the evening in a room at Motel 6.
The Jeb Bush camp has got to be in full-throttle panic mode by now. An unskilled debater, Jeb seems to go for the capillary rather than the jugular. He made a terrible decision to take a cheap, pointless shot at Marco Rubio about his senate attendance record, making himself look scared, and providing Rubio with a grooved softball that Rubio hit into the upper deck. Jeb’s oratorical style has all the impact of a nerf ball; he may well be the guy that the Microsoft engineers had in mind when they created PowerPoint, conveying his vision for the future of mankind in tidy sequential bullets using the default font.
Jeb is at a crisis point. You could argue that right now he is in third place in the “angry centrist governor” battle -- behind both Kasich and Christie. At least those two have fire in the belly. Now is the time to ask whether Jeb has ever really ached to be President, or if this half-baked dalliance is just an obligation he feels to his family legacy.
But the biggest loser is CNBC.
It was a real disappointment to see the not-yet-ready-for-even-cable-primetime performance of the CNBC team. John Harwood is a respected professional (indeed, Harwood asked that question that led to Rick Perry’s candidacy-ending amnesia), but his questions were angry and arrogant. Rebecca Quick was repeatedly embarrassed for her inability to prove the source of the “gotcha” quotes she flung at the candidates.
Perhaps worse, CNBC simply lost control of the debate. We’ll call it the “Webb Cam,” which is when candidates whine about their time allotment and simply refuse to stop talking, trampling over the hapless moderators. Repeatedly throughout the evening, the candidates simply ignored the question put before them and said, “I need to go back and get my turn to answer the last question.” CNBC cut some people off, and not others. The atmosphere became contentious and toxic; ironically providing a unifying moment for the candidates, as they took turns applauding each other’s civility and stature in the face of the CNBC treatment.
The pity of it is that when the media lives up to the charge of being biased, arrogant, and on a search-and-destroy mission, it provides fresh tanks of oxygen to the Red Staters (and their candidates!) who in turn have greater leeway to dismiss the fair questions of even-handed journalist.
And, by the way, how hard is it to give and candidate sixty seconds and then just turn off the microphone?
For that matter: can we please start the debate on time? We are trained by history to expect the debates to begin when they are advertised to begin, which in this case was 8 PM. Instead CNBC made us listen to second-rate blather for 15 minutes, and they even chatted over the candidate introductions.
Here’s my bottom line: if you are going to give CNBC a debate and watch this joke play out, then let’s give equal time to a really serious network where far more people get their news – Comedy Central.