The Republican Definition Of Debate

This blog was originally published on Forbes as The Republican Definition Of Debate on Wednesday, November 11, 2015.

In the aftermath of the third Republican presidential debate two weeks ago, the candidates and the Republican National Committee screamed bloody murder about the CNBC moderators, accusing them of asking “gotcha” questions—particularly the first question asked of Donald Trump: “Is this a comic-book version of a presidential campaign?”

What followed was a media storm of support for the accusations clashing with an equal storm of defense of a journalists’ obligation to challenge candidates running for public office. As a result, last night’s fourth debate in Milwaukee had checks and balances.

First the sponsors and their moderators were all Republican-friendly: Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal; Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto of the cable channel and Gerard Baker of the newspaper. The other check was the format as announced by Mr. Baker: “Tonight’s rules are simple. Up to 90 seconds for each answer. One minute for each follow-up response. And if a candidate goes over their allotted time, you’ll hear this…” A bell dinged.

Those simple rules were clearly intended to limit the challenges and indeed, the first questions the moderators asked of each of the eight candidates were softballs:

  • Donald Trump: “Are you sympathetic to the protesters (for raising the minimum wage) cause?”
  • Ben Carson: “Where are you (on raising the minimum wage)?”
  • Marco Rubio: “Since you aren’t a fan of all they (the Democrats) are giving away, tell us tonight what you would take back.”
  • John Kasich: “What specific steps will you take to balance the budget?”
  • Ted Cruz: “What other elements do you need in this plan to actually create jobs?
  • Jeb Bush: “What specific regulations would you change? And how will that lead to jobs and growth?”
  • Carly Fiorina: “How are you going to respond to the claim that Democratic presidents are better at creating jobs than Republicans?”
  • Rand Paul: “Does it matter at all that the gap between the rich and everyone else is widening?”

Such questions give the candidates the opportunity to tee up their stump speeches and can quickly become a bland evening of talking heads. A debate, as defined by the dictionary, is “a contention by words or arguments.” So the candidates decided to take matters into their own hands and have an argument.

John Kasich interrupted Jeb Bush to challenge his tax plan, and then interrupted Donald Trump to challenge his position on immigration. Mr. Kasich continued to interrupt so aggressively and so often, Mr. Trump was moved to say, “You should let Jeb speak.”

Then, one by one, the other candidates took off the gloves and interrupted each other so often and so long that the dinging bell became irrelevant. At one point, Mr. Trump, who is not known to be reticent about speaking up, said of Ms. Fiorina, “Why does she keep interrupting everybody?”

The crossfire became so heated that moderator Neil Cavuto, in his closing remarks, said: “Candidates, we want to thank you all. We also appreciate your helping save time by talking over one another at times.”

Apparently “gotcha’” questions are acceptable coming from candidates but not from the moderators.

This blog was originally published on Forbes as The Republican Definition Of Debate on Wednesday, November 11, 2015.