Part 3—No focus, but plenty of snark: Let's start with some small tiny praise.
In last night's GOP debate, moderators from Fox Business and the Wall Street Journal did a better job. They surpassed the miserable performance of CNBC in the October 28 debate.
That doesn't mean that they did a good job. It means they weren't as bad.
One mark of the improvement appeared right at the start of the evening. Right at the start, moderator Neil Cavuto announced that the forum would have a clear focus:
CAVUTO (11/10/15): I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the elephant in the room, and I'm not talking about your party's fine symbol.Good lord! Despite his status in cable news, Cavuto was able to conceive of maintaining a focus! He said the debate would focus on what the candidates had said about the economy and on what they would do to improve it.
I'm talking about the purpose of tonight's debate: The economy and what each of you would do to improve it.
No more, no less. We are focused on those issues, and what you have said on those issues in your words and what your opponents have said in their words about your words. That is the agenda tonight.
For the most part, the moderators stuck to that statement of purpose. Except for one segment about use of the military, almost all the questions last night dealt with the economy.
Twelve nights before, as we'll see below, CNBC had abandoned that focus after just three questions, totaling seven minutes. Last night, Fox Business and the WSJ managed to stick to their framework.
Warning! That doesn't mean that they actually ran an informative, "substantive" debate.
Alas! Moderators can run an uninformative, insubstantial debate while asking nothing but substantive questions! They can accomplish that task by hopscotching through a scattershot list of unrelated substantive questions. Also by failing to challenge responses which are false or evasive.
For the most part, that's what Fox Business and the Journal did last night. Their performance was still much better than CNBC's pitiful effort--an effort many liberal pundits decided to praise after it was criticized by the GOP.
Tomorrow, we'll look at the peculiar ways our leading liberals reviewed that debate. For today, let's get clear on the lousy job CNBC did, right from the start, on October 28.
Again, let's review the setting for their performance. A cynic might say that their effort that night had the look of plutocrat bias.
Ten candidates stood on the stage that night. They had presented the craziest budget plans in the history of the republic—and they were facing a star-studded panel from a major news org with a business/economics focus!
How ludicrous were those budget proposals? One day before, Candidate Kasich had called the front-runners' budget plans "crazy!" With that, the stage had been set for some real bloodletting about those crazy proposals.
Nothing like that occurred. Those budget plans contained massive tax cuts for the rich. It seemed that several of the plans would increase tax bills, perhaps substantially, for the lower half of income earners.
To all appearances, the plans would create massive drains on the federal treasury. And, to explain why that wouldn't happen, the candidates had done several more crazy things:
They'd predicted ludicrous growth rates for the economy, growth rates which have basically never occurred in the nation's history. They had said they would get rid of "loopholes" and deductions, without actually specifying any and without attempting to show how much money the treasury would save.
They had said they'd offset their massive tax cuts with massive cuts in federal spending. What types of spending would they cut? Few specifics had been advanced.
Their proposals were straight outta fantasyland; Kasich had said they were "crazy." Indeed, Kasich's colorful attack had made the moderators' job that much easier. They could surf behind his colorful language, thus defining the size of the problem without having to use insulting language of their own.
The stage was set for a real bloodletting, but it didn't occur. The moderators avoided the lunacy of these proposals, which massively favor the rich.
A cynic might have chalked it up to the corporate press corps' plutocrat bias! How strange to think that our liberal pundits were soon praising the way this debate had been run!
How did things proceed that night? Let's start at the beginning, with the first round of questions to the candidates.
After a silly opening question, the first serious question went to Candidate Trump. Arguably, Trump had the craziest budget plan, and John Harwood seemed to know that.
Unfortunately, Harwood's focus was AWOL from the jump. He threw a sprawling, multipart question at Trump, giving him sixty seconds to answer. The craziness of the budget proposal was just one part of the stew.
This was the evening's first serious question. It produced a lot of commentary, but only because of its snark:
HARWOOD (10/28/15): Mr. Trump, you've done very well in this campaign so far by promising to build a wall and make another country pay for it.Already, focus was in short supply as Harwood began the debate. The craziness of Trump's budget proposal was just one part of a variegated stew.
HARWOOD: Send 11 million people out of the country. Cut taxes $10 trillion without increasing the deficit.
HARWOOD: And make Americans better off because your greatness would replace the stupidity and incompetence of others.
TRUMP: That's right.
HARWOOD: Let's be honest. Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?
The craziness of Trump's "$10 trillion" tax cut floated around with the carrots and greens. It was Harwood's derisive language which drew all the attention.
In fact, Harwood had perhaps understated the craziness of Trump's plan. The Tax Foundation had said that Trump's proposals would cut taxes by $11.98 trillion on a static basis. They got the projected revenue loss down to $10.14 trillion by applying assumptions about economic growth which may or may not be justified, then said that other factors meant that the revenue loss would be higher.
Whatever! Left on their own, very few viewers have any way of judging the size of tax cuts and revenue loss. Is $10 trillion a lot or a little? Do tax cuts of that general size actually make any sense?
George W. Bush's famous tax cuts had totaled some $1.6 trillion, but Harwood made no attempt to place Trump's massively larger figure in any context. And when he asked a follow-up question, he committed the same sorts of sins:
HARWOOD: We're at 60 seconds. We're at 60 seconds. We're at 60 seconds, but I gotta ask you. You talked about your tax plan. You say that it would not increase the deficit because you would cut taxes $10 trillion and the economy would take off like, would take off like a rocket ship.Harwood didn't name any experts. He could have named the Tax Foundation itself, a business-friendly group which said Trump's plan would lose $10-12 trillion in revenue, even allowing for economic growth.
TRUMP: Right. Dynamically.
HARWOOD: I talked to economic advisers who have served presidents of both parties. They said that you have as much chance of cutting taxes that much without increasing the deficit as you would of flying away from that podium by flapping your arms really hard.
Once again, Harwood's question was unhelpfully vague. Once again, his question drew attention, but only for the pointlessly derisive language with which he framed it.
For the record, someone did cite the Tax Foundation before Trump's turn was done. It was Candidate Bush, jumping into this wild scramble as CNBC's moderators tried to hurry things along:
KASICH: John? John, listen, on balance—At this point, the questioning of Candidate Trump was abandoned. Quick moved ahead to a question for Candidate Carson.
BUSH: The Tax Foundation says, has looked at all of our plans and—and [Trump's] creates, even with the dynamic effect, $8 trillion dollar deficits.
QUICK: Gentlemen, we'll, we'll get back to this. Just a minute now, just a minute! We're gonna continue this. I wanna talk taxes—
HARWOOD: Hold it! We'll coming back to you in just a minute! Becky's moving on!
QUICK: Dr. Carson, let's talk about taxes.
"Becky's moving on!" That could have been on the coat of arms for the evening as the moderators persistently jumped from one question to the next.
In this case, when Quick moved to Candidate Carson, she questioned him in rather precise ways about the mammoth revenue loss his tax proposal would apparently cause. But alas! Her brief exchange with Candidate Carson ended like this, with the hapless candidate explaining how he would balance the budget with a 15 percent tax rate:
QUICK: 15 percent still leaves you with a $1.1 trillion hole."I looked at the numbers," Quick said, instead of citing a budget authority. The "$1.1 trillion hole" to which she referred seemed to be annual deficit Carson's plan would cause, but she never explicitly said so.
CARSON: You also have to get rid of all the deductions and all the loopholes. You also have to do some strategic cutting in several places.
Remember, we have 645 federal agencies and sub-agencies. Anybody who tells me that we need every penny and every one of those is in a fantasy world.
So, also, we can stimulate the economy. That's gonna be the real growth engine, stimulating the economy. Because it's tethered down right now with so many regulations.
QUICK: You'd have to cut— You'd have to cut government by about 40 percent to make it work with a $1.1 trillion hole.
CARSON: It's not true.
QUICK: That is true, I looked at the numbers.
CARSON: When— When we put all the facts down, you'll be able to see that it's not true, it works out very well.
QUICK: Dr. Carson, thank you.
Earlier, Quick had agreed with Carson when he inaccurately said that he'd never proposed a single rate of ten percent. Now, she thanked him for his crazy comments as the debate sped ahead.
Candidate Carson had made a set of ludicrous claims—ludicrous claims about economic growth; ludicrous claims about (unspecified) budget cuts; puzzling claims about the (unspecified) deductions and loopholes he'd dump. As always with Candidate Carson, the statement we've shown you is a textbook case of evasion and cluelessness.
The moderator thanked him for this. She didn't ask him when he planned to "put all the facts down," and no one ever returned to his hapless statements again.
The moderators made no attempt to alert the public to the haplessness of this clueless man's peroration. A cynic might wonder what could explain the lethargy that was displayed.
Trump and Carson had now been questioned about their "crazy" tax plans. From the start of Harwood's initial question, just over four minutes had passed.
Some of that time had been burned away on Trump's immigration plan, which had formed part of Harwood's initial question. By now, less than four minutes had been devoted to the candidates' "crazy" tax plans.
Harwood now threw to Candidate Kasich, asking if he'd like to repeat the "very strong words" he had uttered about "what you're hearing from the two gentlemen we've just heard from." Kasich spoke for roughly three minutes, some of which was devoted to Trump's immigration plan.
"Thank you, governor," the third moderator then said—and after roughly seven minutes, the evening's discussion of those "crazy" tax plans was essentially done.
Roughly seven minutes had passed; three candidates had been questioned. The next candidates to be questioned were Rubio, Bush, Fiorina.
Tomorrow, we'll show you what those hopefuls were asked. We're willing to offer a spoiler now:
The questions they got were long on snark, but substance had now been abandoned.
From that point on, the moderators burned the rest of the two hours with a scattershot, grab-bag collection of unrelated questions. Near the end of the evening, Candidate Christie got the biggest cheer of the night.
Christie ridiculed the moderators for asking about a question about the regulation of fantasy football. This is what the candidate said. The audience went wild:
CHRISTIE: Carl, are we really talking about getting government involved in fantasy football?Candidate Christie was widely hailed for this perfectly sensible speech. Astoundingly, liberal pundits were soon defending the moderators for their pitiful, woeful performance.
We have— Wait a second! We have $19 trillion in debt. We have people out of work. We have ISIS and al Qaeda attacking us. And we're talking about fantasy football? Can we stop?
CHRISTIE: How about this? How about we get the government to do what they're supposed to be doing, secure our borders, protect our people, and support American values and American families. Enough on fantasy football! Let people play! Who cares?
Good God! The candidates who stood on that stage had presented the craziest budget proposals in the nation's history. Candidate Kasich has said as much, just one day before.
Those budget plans constituted giant windfalls to the rich. Some of the plans seem to raise the federal tax bill for the poor and the middle class, perhaps in substantial ways.
But so what? With their exquisite focus on the economy, the moderators devoted seven snark-infested minutes to those crazy plans. At that point, they wandered off into the woods, where they spent the rest of their evening.
To even the mildest of cynics, the moderators' disinterest in those crazy plans might look like a marker of plutocrat bias. But how strange! Those moderators are still being praised by major liberals for their handling of that debate.
We can't read the minds of those liberal pundits. But liberal praise for that awful performance helps show us the world in which we live.
How deep is our culture's plutocrat bias? By legend, still waters run deep!
Tomorrow: Why would liberals say this?
Seeing may even be believing: To watch the debate, click here.