Leading up to the Republican debate on Wednesday night, the on-air talent of CNN was nearly giddy with anticipation — not so much for the debate itself, but for the potential ratings Fox News garnered for the previous debate. CNN naturally wanted the same multi-millions of viewers, and spent virtually the entire 24 hours preceding the event promoting the debate, speculating on the questions the CNN debate panel would ask, guessing how all the candidates would react to frontrunner Donald Trump. The CNN cameras were practically shaking with excitement when, earlier in the day, Rand Paul spent debate afternoon on a gun range shooting an AR-15 at a target that may as well have had a picture of Trump on it. A clip of Paul going bang-bang was rerun repeatedly on CNN, in just the latest example of a cable-news channel using up its day with a colorful visual rather than, you know, news.
Once the debate was under way, questioners Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, and Hugh Hewitt were overrun by the 11 candidates arrayed across the Air Force One Pavilion of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, with Reagan’s Presidential plane as a backdrop. The too-loose rules allowed for any candidate whose name was mentioned in the answer of another to make a response, which led to frequent chaos, noise, and confusion. Three hours rarely felt so long — at around the half-way mark, I thought CNN was counter-programming against NBC’s America’s Got Talent with a new show: America’s Got Windbags.
I’ll leave it to my colleagues over at Yahoo News to analyze the content of the debate; for me, evaluating it as a TV show — as programming scheduled by a news channel with the announced intent of enlightening the public — the CNN debate was a mess at once hectic and tedious.
The marathon started out ruefully funny and semi-feisty. Trump was super-Trumpy in his opening statement regarding his credentials — “I wrote The Art of the Deal; I say not in a braggadocious way, I’ve made billions and billions of dollars” — while Chris Christie was faux-humble: “Take the camera off me and put it on the audience.” Mike Huckabee wasted no time accusing Hillary Clinton of “leaking secrets.” Everyone got a few licks in at polling top-dog Trump, such as Rand Paul chastising him for his “careless language.” Scott Walker, perhaps realizing early on he wasn’t going to get much air-time, smacked Trump and President Obama simultaneously: “We don’t need an apprentice in the White House; we have one there now.”
But the debate soon settled into a squawk-fest that left the CNN questioners directing traffic in the middle of an 11-car pile-up. One thing became clear as the tedium set in: Donald Trump’s braying stand-up-politician act didn’t go over as well with the audience in the second Republican debate as it did in the first debate. Where the Fox News-hosted audience was frequently startled and delighted by Trump’s bluntness, the businessman’s bluster was met mostly with quiet absorption by a CNN audience that was less interested in zingers than uplift and the evisceration of Democratic leaders: The clapping was loudest whenever someone landed a blow on Obama or Hillary.
It could be argued that Carly Fiorina got the biggest applause of the night, in response to a softball question about Trump’s insulting remark about her physical appearance: “I think women all over the country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”
The debate is, inevitably, a kind of entertainment, and the debaters performers. In this sense, Jeb Bush’s gaze doesn’t play well on-camera — even when he’s saying something substantive, his blank stare makes it look as though he’s groping for words. Similarly, Ted Cruz’s default expression is one of sour sympathy: he always looks at the audience as though commiserating over the recent death of a loved one. Chris Christie was trying out his best Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden after winning the lottery expression — he was hellbent on radiating positivity. Rand Paul and Ben Carson addressed the public as visiting professors giving guest lectures. Fiorina came prepared with tons of facts and figures delivered with a machine-gun spray, emphasizing her tough-executive image. Marco Rubio and Mike Huckabee competed for the Most Pious Expression prize. And everybody used the phrase “I’m the only person on this dais…” way too frequently.
A winner? There wasn’t one, or maybe they were all equal winners. The losers were viewers hoping for an increase in information and clarity in the crowded Republican field. As soon as the debate was over, Anderson Cooper, the hope for CNN to achieve Fox-y fireworks draining from his voice, croaked, “What an evening!” in the all-to-aptly named “Spin Room.”