Without question, last Wednesday’s CNBC Republican debate was one of the most poorly executed “debates” in televised history. While we can attribute some of this to a still-crowded stage full of candidates seeking relevancy through headlines, the lion’s share of the blame rests with the moderators and the network.
The very essence of a debate lies in the allowance of interaction between candidates, and when this is limited, you get what you got from CNBC: a trainwreck.
While I understand that this most recent exchange was an hour shorter than the previous two GOP debates and there were stricter time limits for each question, there is very little that can excuse the inability of the moderators to corral the candidates and keep them focused on the questions at hand.
Instead, what onlookers received this week was a front row seat to a middle school cafeteria fight filled with incomprehensible yelling, outright insolence, and a free-for-all where candidates could just throw out whatever prized one-liners they had been waiting to deliver. This is how Ted Cruz was able to slam the network for being what he considers part of the “liberal media” and for asking non-substantive questions. (To be fair, though, I’ve seen him make the same claim about substantive questions, so ….)
Then there was the moment when onlookers could clearly see that not all of the moderators were prepared for the debate to the extent that they should have been. This came when Becky Quick started pressing Donald Trump over his stance on high-skill immigrant visas. When he called her out for her confusion, she apologized and allowed him to respond. She then questioned his criticism of Marco Rubio and why he referred to him as “Mark Zuckerburg’s personal senator.” Trump responded by saying that he never said this, yet those words are on his campaign website. Ms. Quick didn’t know this, though, and she took him at his word.
I could go on and on about how terrible and fruitless this debate was, but there have been new developments. The Republican National Committee announced by week’s end that they are pulling out of the planned Feb. 26 debate with NBC because of the backlash from candidates after this most recent one.
In a letter to NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus explained the decision to withdraw from the event, noting that CNBC is the property of NBC Universal. He stated: “While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ visions and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of ‘gotcha’ questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates.”
I would argue that several of these candidates have been doing a good enough job of this on their own. Also, I question the RNC’s decision to completely withdraw instead of putting forth an effort to rethink the way these debates are handled altogether. Ten or more people on a stage is too many people. In fact, more than four is too many people. Sure, there was an effort on the front end to include as many initial candidates as possible and poll numbers largely determined the makeup of each debate. But the polls keep changing and I think it’s evident it will take a miracle for some of these people to gain enough momentum to stay in the race after the turn of the year. We’ve already seen some dropouts. By February, we can bet the crowd will be a bit a thinner and polling data will give us a greater idea of who shouldn’t be participating in these larger debates.
But if the RNC wants to forego an opportunity for their more viable candidates to get their message out to a greater pool of people, so be it. That’s their poor decision to make.