Part 5—Our big liberal pundits won't tell: We've now had four Republican debates. Have any of these sessions actually been "substantive?"
Strongly, we would say no. In a front-page report in today's New York Times, Haberman and Flegenheimer allude to one of the problems.
The reporters describe a familiar sequence from Tuesday evening's fourth debate. This is precisely the way "substantive" discourse dies:
HABERMAN/FLEGENHEIMER (11/13/15): The immigration issue flared briefly during the Republican debate on Tuesday night in Milwaukee, with Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio saying there was no way to conduct the types of mass deportations that Mr. Trump has called for.So true! For whatever reason, attention disorder reared its very familiar head during that exchange. The moderators asked two candidates about mass deportation, thus rushed to a new/improved topic.
Just after they addressed the issue, the Fox Business Network moderators turned to Mr. Rubio, but instead of pressing him on the issue, they turned to a new topic, sparing him difficult questions in front of a nationally televised audience.
Was this done as a favor to Candidate Rubio? Some have offered that speculation; we have no idea. But when debates are run in this scattershot way, they become beauty pageants.
TV viewers get to see and hear how the candidates look and sound. But it's hard to conduct a substantive discussion when moderator hopscotch around in grab-bag fashion, asking unrelated questions in much the way the ping-pong balls appear in a lottery drawing.
This approach is a gift to the candidates, especially to the slackers and the dissemblers. They get to recite a few easy points. The moderators then move on.
This approach is the death of substance. Moderators who behave this way can spend two hours asking questions, all of which deal with matters of substance, without advancing anyone's grasp of any major issue.
By the end of a two-hour session, such moderators may be asking questions about fantasy football as the audience jeers. Indeed, that's exactly what happened at the third GOP debate, the October 28 debate run by CNBC.
Deeply important policy questions were quickly abandoned and ignored. Instead, the moderators rattled a long list of relatively trivial questions, including many which were loaded with snark. Many of these snark-filled questions involved no substance at all.
Consider the first round of questions for the ten candidates—the round of questions which were asked before the evening's first commercial break. Presumably by corporate design, these questions were loaded with attitude, provocation and snark.
But uh-oh! In the process of pimping their tude, the moderators abandoned any attempt to create a substantive discussion. In particular, the candidates received a very large pass concerning their ludicrous budget plans, which Candidate Kasich had correctly denounced as "crazy" just one day before.
The moderators hopscotched around, asking a grab-bag of unrelated, trivial questions. But so what? Within a matter of days, Ezra Klein and other major pundits were hailing the "substantive" work of those overpaid TV stars.
A cynic might even think that ludicrous claims had the look of careerist guild bias! That said, how "substantive" was that first round of questions, which Candidate Cruz was soon denouncing?
Let's take a look at the record:
A highly charitable person could claim that the first three questions—to Candidates Trump, Carson and Kasich—were an attempt to stage a substantive discussion of those budget plans.
For reasons we'll note below, we wouldn't be that charitable. At any rate, the exchanges with those first three candidates lasted only seven minutes, in a session which ran two hours.
At that point, guess what happened? We'll simply borrow the language shown above from today's news report:
"Just after they addressed the issue, the [CNBC] moderators turned to Mr. Rubio, but instead of pressing him on the issue, they turned to a new topic, sparing him difficult questions in front of a nationally televised audience!" That same thing happened on October 28!
Question 4 went to Candidate Rubio. But he wasn't asked about his own budget plan which, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, "would add $11.8 trillion to the national debt over a decade." In an outbreak of attention deficit, that giant topic had been abandoned. Instead, Rubio was asked an amazingly snarky question, in which it was suggested that he should quit the race, postponing his pursuit of the White House until he becomes a bit older.
("You've been a young man in a hurry ever since you won your first election in your 20s...Why not slow down, get a few more things done first or least finish what you start?" In the second round of questions, Rubio was asked if he possibly lacks the "maturity" to serve in the White House.)
Think back to late October 2007. In that year, Candidate Obama was a young first-term senator, as Rubio is today. (Obama had just turned 46; Rubio is 44.)
Back in 2007, if any moderator had posed such questions to Candidate Obama, the liberal/progressive world would have been upset. The question to Rubio was highly presumptuous, even if our own tribal bias may have kept us from seeing as much.
Be that as it may, the question to Candidate Rubio wasn't "substantive" at all. Meanwhile, the candidates' crazy budget plans had now disappeared from view.
The next question, Question 5, went to Candidate Bush. This question didn't deal with a substantive topic either. Instead, Bush was asked to discuss "how far your stock has fallen in this race, despite the big investment your donors have made."
There is no bigger waste of time than a debate question about bad poll numbers. Meanwhile, this question came with a peculiar pair of gotchas: "I want to ask you in this context. Ben Bernanke, who was appointed Fed chairman by your brother, recently wrote a book in which he said he no longer considers himself a Republican because the Republican Party has given in to know-nothingism. Is that why you're having a difficult time in this race?"
In that way, Bush was asked to discuss the possibility that Republican voters are a gang of know-nothings. Apparently, he was also expected to respond to everything that has ever been said by one of his brother's appointees.
Question 6 went to Candidate Fiorina. She was asked, for the ten millionth time, to recite her standard speech about her tenure at Hewlett Packard. Beyond that, she was asked to explain a weird statement by a former HP board member who has taken to defending her tenure. This matched the question to Candidate Bush about Bernanke's statement.
By now, the moderators had abandoned the candidates' crazy tax plans. Indeed, the moderators had moved on from substance altogether. Instead, they wasted everyone's time with a question about bad polls, the ultimate waste-of-time debate query. They littered the countryside with snark and with peculiar gotchas.
When Cruz got a somewhat snarky Question 7, he denounced the moderators. By the end of the debate, RNC chairman Reince Priebus was doing the same.
Alas! The snark which drove these early questions turned into an unpaid gift for the GOP. Meanwhile, we liberals failed to notice the way the moderators had given the candidates a pass on those ludicrous tax proposals, which Kasich had denounced as "crazy" just one day before.
Let's be fair! At first, we liberals did wail and moan about the moderators. As we noted yesterday, Josh Marshall quickly reported what everyone was saying.
"As everyone is already discussing, CNBC probably shouldn't be allowed to run a debate again," Marshall wrote. "Aside from the expertly prepared John Harwood, the moderators were bad and poorly—almost embarrassingly—prepared."
In our view, Harwood was awful too. As we'll note below, his ridiculous opening questions for Trump established the snark-infested tone of the first round of questions.
At any rate, Marshall posted again an hour later. "Let's not even get into perhaps the most comically poor debate prep we've ever seen in a national debate," he wrote. "Are these folks even journalists?"
According to Marshall, everyone was saying it. The debate had been so poorly run that CNBC should never be allowed to run one again. But heaven help our tribalism, which is eating the brains of the liberal world. As soon as the GOP began to criticize the moderators, we liberals copped a new attitude! We praised them for their substantive questions, often in ludicrous ways.
For starters, just consider what Ezra Klein said about Harwood's first question to Trump.
Harwood's first question to Trump was barely a question at all. "Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?" the expertly-prepared moderator had said.
Basically, Harwood had stated his derisive judgement in the form of a question! But alas! His snark-drenched non-question question served as a gift to Trump. So did his second insult-in-the-form-of-a-question, where he pictured Trump trying to fly off the stage by flapping his arms very hard.
As he opened the evening's questions, Harwood trafficked in insults rather than journalism. But as soon as Priebus complained, we liberals began to defend him, with Ezra Klein making one of the dumbest comments ever committed to print:
"I’m a comic book nerd, and even I don’t know what it means to ask if something is a 'comic book presidential campaign,' " Ezra actually said.
Earth to Ezra: Everybody else on the planet does know what that means!
Other pundits struggled manfully, defending the substantive nature of CNBC's early questions. William Saletan parsed it thusly at Slate:
SALETAN (10/29/15): Half an hour into Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate, Sen. Ted Cruz exploded at the CNBC moderators. “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz fumed. “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 the people care about?”Truly, that's sad. Saletan criticized Cruz for failing to match the debate transcript, which didn't exist at the time Cruz spoke.
Take Cruz’s speech. It doesn’t even match the debate transcript. To begin with, nobody called Trump a villain. CNBC’s John Harwood asked Trump how he would fulfill his promises to “build a wall and make another country pay for it” (Mexico), “send 11 million people out of the country” (undocumented immigrants), and “cut taxes $10 trillion without increasing the deficit.” Second, nobody asked Carson whether he could do math. CNBC’s Becky Quick asked Carson how he would close the $1 trillion gap between current federal spending and the revenue projected from Carson’s 15 percent flat tax. Third, nobody asked Kasich to insult his colleagues. Kasich volunteered that Trump’s and Carson’s promises were impractical and incoherent. All of these questions were substantive. In fact, Cruz’s speech was a diversion from the query that had been posed to him—namely, why did he oppose this week’s agreement to raise the debt limit?
Saletan did have a transcript, but he chose to ignore it. He disappeared Harwood's "comic book" reference, thereby giving a false impression of what Harwood had actually said.
"All these questions were substantive," Saletan also said. In this statement, he simply ignoring the several questions which weren't.
Cruz's take on the questions to Rubio and Bush had been perfectly fair, perhaps even soft. Saletan simply ignored those non-substantive questions, along with the golden oldie to Fiorina, as he praised the moderators for their substantive work.
Once the RNC got into the hunt, presentations like this became de rigueur for many liberal pundits. If the RNC was attacking the panel, that seemed to mean that we liberals had to assert their greatness. We were too dumb, too lazy, too uncaring to note a basic fact:
In fact, the overpaid TV stars had abandoned substance early on, giving those candidates a near total pass on the craziness of their budget proposals.
Perhaps it was our "tribal bias"--our instinct to contradict whatever The Other Tribe says. Perhaps it was our "careerist guild bias"--our instinct to maintain the code of silence about way our colleagues and possible future employers actually work.
It may have been free-floating "plutocrat bias"--our inability to care at this point when massive upward redistribution is being proposed in front of our eyes.
Whatever it was, it had us saying that we don't even know what the term "comic book" means! And this Monday, it had our analysts with red swollen eyes after they read a post by their Uncle Drum.
Good lord! Drum listed a few of the ludicrous elements in those "crazy" tax proposals. But then, good grief! He said this:
DRUM (11/9/15): This is all fantasyland stuff. So why doesn't the media hammer them more on it? Why do debate moderators let them get away with such lunacy? Good question. John Harwood tried the only honest approach in the last debate, suggesting that Donald Trump was running a "comic book" campaign—and it was Harwood who got hammered. Harwood gamely tried a second time with Trump, telling him 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." Trump brushed him off. Harwood tried yet again with Rubio, this time citing numbers from the Tax Foundation, and Rubio brushed him off. That's a couple of tries at mockery and one try at arithmetic, and they both had the same effect."Harwood tried the only honest approach?" What have they done with our real Uncle Drum, two or three analysts cried.
Was Harwood's approach honest at all? We have no idea. We'll guess it may have been prescribed by his corporate owners. We'll guess they may have wanted to establish a tone in the first round of questions. We'll guess they simply overshot the runway by a few thousand yards.
Those would be our guesses. But whatever else can be said about Harwood's approach, his approach wasn't journalistic.
A journalist can't establish a point by use of derisive language. He has to establish his points by reference to basic facts.
Harwood cited very few facts in his first round of questions to Trump. Later on, he used real facts with Rubio, but there was no follow-up from the rest of the panel after Rubio evaded and dissembled.
Uncle Drum seemed puzzled about what a panel can do about this. Luckily, we can explain! This is what the CNBC panel should have done in that third debate:
They should have set a block aside to discuss budget plans—nothing else. They should have announced that their first long block would be about nothing else.
In discussing those budget plans, they should have established the lunatic size of those proposed tax cuts. It isn't enough to say that Trump is proposing $10 trillion in cuts. You have to say that his $11-12 trillion in tax cuts is many times larger than Bush's tax cuts. You have to say that he would cut one-fourth of all federal receipts.
In discussing those budget plans, they should have established the degree of fantasy involved in the candidates' projected growth rates. Will Candidate Trump preside over an economy with 6% annual growth rates? The history of our annual growth rates is easy to cite; many experts can be quoted. It's easy to see that Trump is projecting that cows will jump over the moon.
In discussing those budget plans, they should have insisted that the candidates start naming specific budget cuts. Journalistically, garbage like this should never be allowed to occur:
CARSON (10/28/15): 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.Journalistically, that's an abomination. To her credit, Quick almost seemed to be trying. That said, here's what occurred:
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.
Carson said we don't need every one of our 645 federal agencies. Plainly, that is true. It also has nothing to do with the amount of cutting his crazy plan would require.
Quick then made one tiny attempt to discuss some actual numbers. Carson said her statement wasn't true. Quick then thanked him for saying that and she hurried on. None of the panelists ever mentioned Carson's manifest bullshit again.
In discussing those budget plans, they have to ask the so-called "flat taxers" to name the deductions they would dump. These deductions have all been costed out. It's easy to say how much money would be saved by dumping different deductions.
Journalistically, you can't allow this gang of hustlers to drift along with endless vague statements about getting rid of loopholes. By the way, would Carson keep the standard deduction as part of his lunatic single-rate plan? In eleven hours of pseudo-debate, no one has bothered to ask.
"Harwood tried the only honest approach?" That's right up there with Ezra's claim that he doesn't know what "comic book" means. Luckily, the honest journalistic approach is easy to define.
A panel has to stick to fact-based questions about those tax proposals. And they have to engage in persistent follow-up. They can't do what the New York Times describes this very morning:
"But instead of pressing him on the issue, they turned to a new topic, sparing him difficult questions in front of a nationally televised audience."
That's exactly what these corporate panels have been doing all along. People like Ezra, Marshall and Saletan can't seem to figure this out.
(Drum has been strongly back on track in the past several days. He's been listing the ludicrous budget claims these candidates must be called on.)
For ourselves, we'll guess those panels are doing what their corporate bosses instructed. That said, why won't your favorite liberals say what those panels are doing?
Why won't they say that those panels have been hopscotching all around, refusing to stage a sustained critique of those "crazy" budget proposals? Why won't our favorite star liberals tell us the truth about that?
It may be their "careerist guild bias." They want to sit on those panels some day. Within the Potemkin American press, you never criticize your possible future employers.
(This is known as the code of silence.)
It could be their "tribal bias." If Priebus says the panelists were bad, we know they must have been good.
(This is the way we liberals get dumb and dumberer.)
Clearly, though, this conduct has to reflect a bit of "plutocrat bias." Those tax proposals are plainly crazy, just as Kasich said. Beyond that, they're an abomination of upward distribution to the vastly rich, with the strong possibility that some of the plans will increase federal tax bills to the middle class.
Ezra doesn't seem to care about that any more. Maybe he's been in This Town too long. Maybe he's gotten too rich.