The Republican National Committee suspended its relationship with NBC News, alleging bias and disrespect in the recent debate on CNBC. My analysis shows that only 54% of the questions were about legitimate policy issues. So the RNC has a point.
Debates featuring a scrum of ten people are a poor way to judge candidates; they mostly show the candidates’ skills with one-liners and comebacks. To make them at all worthwhile, the moderators must ask clear, legitimate policy questions. Their objective should be to reveal the candidates, not cleverly ensnare them. CNBC failed on that front.
I analyzed 41 questions that the moderators asked and graded them from A to F, as follows:
A. Good questions focused on important issues
B. Questions about a candidate’s character or minor issues
C. Gotcha questions that don’t inform voters
D. Questions that are lame, but not completely valueless
F. Awful questions that reveal nothing.
A valuable forum would include nearly all A questions and a few B’s. In this debate, 54% of the questions were A’s, but the rest ranged from weak to embarrassing. As Ted Cruz said, “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match.” (This may be the only time you will find me agreeing with Ted Cruz).
Here’s a chart of my results.
Out of 41 questions, I rate 15 as either gotcha questions, lame, or awful. This is reporter-moderators poking fun at candidates and attempting to appear smart. My analysis shows that the questionable questions were mostly at the front, and that Carl Quintanilla, John Harwood, and Becky Quick asked the dumb questions. Jim Cramer, Rick Santelli, and Sharon Epperson asked legitimate questions.
You may quibble with where I placed individual questions. But I find myself in agreement with the RNC. Debate moderators need to take these forums more seriously, including their responsibility to find ways to get the candidates to reveal their true positions and character. We don’t care how clever you are. Believe me, the candidates are quite capable of appearing smart, informed, or idiotic all on their own.
Here’s the complete list of questions, edited for brevity from the Washington Post transcript and graded from worst to best.
F: Awful questions that reveal nothing (6 questions)
Carl Quintanilla: What’s your biggest weakness? Hackneyed interview question, total gotcha, reveals nothing about candidates.
John Harwood (to Trump): Is this the comic book version of a presidential campaign? Forces candidate to defend himself rather that positions; very silly.
Unknown (to Huckabee): [Regarding his Trump tie,] Is it made in China or Mexico? Pathetic.
Quintanilla (to Carson): [Regarding your position on Costco’s board,] a marketing study called the warehouse retailer the number one gay-friendly brand in America, partly because of its domestic partner benefits. Why would you serve on a company whose policies seem to run counter to your views on homosexuality? His board role doesn’t make him responsible for Costco’s policy on gays.
Harwood (to Huckabee): The leading Republican candidate, when you look at the average of national polls right now, is Donald Trump. When you look at him, do you see someone with the moral authority to unite the country?Just baiting candidates to create an argument.
Becky Quick (to Trump): [Y]ou called [Rubio] Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator because he was in favor of the H1B. More baiting.
D: Questions that are lame, but not completely valueless (2 questions)
Harwood (to Bush): Governor, the fact that you’re at the fifth lectern tonight shows how far your stock has fallen . . . Ben Bernanke . . . 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? This is pure character assassination and has nothing to do with issues.
Harwood (to Kasich): You had some very strong words to say . . . about what’s happening in your party . . . . You said yesterday that you were hearing proposals that were just crazy from your colleagues. Who were you talking about? This is just an invitation for the candidates to argue.
C: Gotcha questions that don’t inform voters (7 questions)
Harwood (to Trump): you have as chance of cutting taxes that much without increasing the deficit as you would of flying away from that podium by flapping your arms. Legit to ask candidate about his position, but asked in a humiliating way. And the other moderators moved on and did not allow Trump to answer.
Quintanilla (to Fiorina): You want to bring 70,000 pages [of the tax code down] to three? Is that using really small type? Asked in a humiliating way.
Quantanilla (to Rubio): [Y]ou’re skipping more votes than any senator to run for president. . . .[W]hen the Sun-Sentinel says Rubio should resign, not rip us off, . . . when they say you act like you hate your job, do you? Legitimate question, but gets only at character, not issues.
Quick (to Fiorina): You are running for president of the United States because of your record running Hewlett-Packard. . . . Someone who invested a dollar in your company the day you took office had lost half of the dollar by the day you left. I just wondered why you think we should hire you now. While Fiorina’s record is important, the answer to this question sheds little light on Fiorina’s qualifications to be president.
Quick (to Trump): Your Atlantic City casinos filed for bankruptcy four times. . . . Bankruptcy is a broken promise. Why should the voters believe the promises that you’re telling them right now? Gets to character, but not issues.
Quick (to Rubio): You accidentally inter-mingled campaign money with your personal money. You faced foreclosure on a second home that you bought. And just last year, you liquidated a $68,000 retirement fund. [Do] you have the maturity and wisdom to lead this $17 trillion economy? Forces candidate to talk about personal issues, some of which are disputed, rather than his position on issues.
Quintanilla (to Carson): [You had a 10-year relationship with] Mannatech, a maker of nutritional supplements. . . . They . . . paid $7 million to settle a deceptive marketing lawsuit in Texas, and yet your involvement continued. Why? This is a gotcha question, but a legitimate one, with more substance than most of the other guilt-by-association questions.
B: Questions about a candidate’s character or minor issues (4 questions)
Quintanilla (to Trump): After the Oregon mass shooting on October 1st, you said, “By the way, it was a gun-free zone. If you had a couple of teachers with guns, you would have been a hell of a lot better off.” Would you feel more comfortable if your employees brought guns to work? Legitimate policy question, but worded in an inflammatory way.
Qunitanilla (to Cruz): 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. Does your opposition to it show that you’re not the kind of problem-solver American voters want? This is a legitimate question about the candidate’s position, but asked in a condescending way. This is the question that set Cruz off on media unfairness.
Rick Santelli (to Carson): [Y]ou don’t like government subsidies, it interferes with the free market. But you’ve also said that you’re in favor of taking oil subsidies and putting them towards ethanol processing. Isn’t that just swapping one subsidy for another . . . ? Fair policy question, but focus is on candidate’s position rather than policy.
Quintanilla (to Bush, followup to Christie): Daily fantasy sports . . . will award billions of dollars in prize money this year. . . . Isn’t that . . . gambling, and should the Federal Government treat it as such? A legitimate question, but not at the level of the other policy issues that deserve discussion .
A: Good questions, focused on important issues (22 issues)
Harwood (to Paul): [T]he budget deal . . . makes cuts in entitlement programs, Medicare and Social Security disability, which are the very programs conservatives say need cutting to shrink government and solve our country’s long-term budget deficit. Do you oppose that budget deal because it doesn’t cut those programs enough? A fair question about policy.
Quick (to Carson): You have a tax plan of 10% flat taxes . . . It’s gonna leave us in a $2 trillion hole. What analysis got you the point where you think this will work? Focused on a candidate’s policy, fair question.
Quick (to Christie, followup to Huckabee): In your . . . campaign, you’ve said . . . that we need to raise the retirement age for Social Security. You think that we need to cut benefits for people who make over $80,000 and eliminate them entirely for seniors who are making over $200,000. . . . When it is acceptable to break a social compact? A fair question focused on policy.
Jim Cramer (to Carson): [A] number of pharmaceutical companies has been accused of profiteering, for dramatically raising the prices of life-saving drugs. Have these companies gone too far? Should the government be involved in controlling some of these price increases? A fair, issues-focused question.
Cramer (to Christie): General Motors paid more than $1 billion in fines and settlements for its ignition switch defect. One hundred and twenty-four people died as a result of these faulty switches. No one went to jail. . . . [D]o you believe the people responsible for the switch and the cover-up belong behind bars? A fair policy question.
Harwood (to Bush): [F]our years ago, every Republican running for president pledged to oppose a budget deal containing any tax increase . . . [Y]ou said you would take that deal. Still feel that way? An important policy question.
Quintanilla (to Fiorina): [Y]ou called an Internet sales tax a bad idea. . . . Now that the Internet shopping playing field has matured, what would be a fair plan to even that playing field? A real policy question.
Harwood (to Kasich): [Y]ou’ve called for abolishing the Export Import Bank, which provides subsidies to help American companies compete with overseas competitors. You call that corporate welfare. If subsidies are good enough for Ohio companies, why aren’t they good enough for companies trying to compete overseas? A legitimate policy question, but asked in a misleading way — the two issues are obviously different.
Quick (to Cruz): [W]orking women in this country still earn just 77% of what men earn. I just wonder what you would do as President to try and help in this cause? A legitimate policy question.
Harwood (to Rubio, followup by Quick to Trump): [Regarding] your support for dramatically increasing immigration visas called H1B, which are designed for workers with the special skills that Silicon Valley wants. But [Senator] Jeff Sessions [says] the tech industry uses this program to undercut hiring and wages for highly qualified Americans. Why is he wrong? A legitimate policy question.
Santelli (to Cruz, followup to Paul): You’ve been a fierce critic of the Fed, arguing for more transparency. . . . Do you want to get Congress involved in monetary policy, or is it time to slap the Fed back and downsize them completely? Legitimate policy question.
Quick (to Huckabee): [Y]ou have railed against income inequality. . . . Apart from your tax plan, are there specific steps you would require from corporate America to try and reduce the income inequality? Legitimate policy question.
Harwood (to Bush): Given the problems we’ve been discussing, growing gap between rich and poor, why would you tax labor at a higher rate than income from investments? Legitimate tax policy question.
Harwood (to Rubio, followup to Paul): The Tax Foundation . . . concluded that you give nearly twice as much of a gain in after-tax income to the top 1 percent as to people in the middle of the income scale. Since you’re the champion of Americans living paycheck-to- paycheck, don’t you have that backward? Legitimate question about Rubio’s tax plan.
Quintanilla (to Kasich): We’re broadcasting from Colorado which has seen $150 million in new revenue for the state since legalizing [marijuana] last year. . . .Given the budget pressures in Ohio, and other states, is this a revenue stream you’d like to have? Legitimate policy question.
Quick (to Trump, followup to Rubio): Are you in favor of H-1Bs or are you opposed to them? Legitimate question on immigration policy.
Sharon Epperson (to Fiorina): [M]ore than half of American[s] have no access to an employer sponsored retirement plan. . . . Should the Federal Government play a larger role in helping to set up retirement plans for these workers? Legitimate policy question.
Epperson (to Kasich, followup to Bush): This country has over $100 billion in student loan defaults. What will you do to make sure that students, their families, taxpayers, won’t feel the economic impact of this burden for generations? Important policy question.
Harwood (to Christie): [Y]ou’ve said . . . climate change is undeniable, that human activity contributes to it, and you said, quote: “The question is, what do we do to deal with it?” So what do we do? Important policy question.
Quick (to Paul, followup to Huckabee): Considering the mounting cost of Medicare, was [Reagan] right to oppose it? Legitimate policy question.
Harwood (to Trump, followup to Bush, Kasich, and Paul): Mr. Trump says that he is capable of growing the economy so much that Social Security and Medicare don’t have to be touched. Do you want to explain how that is going to happen? Legitimate policy question.
Harwood (to Carson, followup to Christie, Rubio, and Fiorina): You’ve said that you would like to replace Medicare with a system of individual family savings accounts, so that families could cover their own expenses. . . . Explain how that would work, exactly. Legitimate policy question.