It was not a good night for the media.
Ted Cruz slapped down the moderators of the CNBC Republican debate, Marco Rubio declared that the press functions as a super-PAC for Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump mocked one of his CNBC questioners, and the consensus on Twitter was that the Boulder forum’s questions had been overly hostile to the GOP field and not focused enough on the supposed topic of economics.
And at the end of the night, the Republican National Committee — which is responsible for the debates — slammed CNBC, which is a Yahoo media partner, for its handling of the night.
Four years ago, Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina Republican primary because he attacked moderators and the media in general during two straight debates, delighting GOP voters. Cruz and Rubio competed with each other at the third Republican presidential primary debate to see who could out-Gingrich the other.
Cruz, the U.S. senator from Texas, went off on CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla on Wednesday night, drawing enormous applause from the Colorado debate crowd.
“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz said. The crowd roared its approval. “This is not a cage match.”
“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?’” Cruz said. “How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?”
At this point, the applause from the audience was overwhelming. Pollster Frank Luntz tweeted that Cruz’s comments prompted “the highest score we’ve ever measured” on dials that a focus group was using to register approval or disapproval of the debate.
Cruz’s paraphrase of the moderators’ questions showcased them in the worst possible light and demonstrated the Harvard Law graduate’s rhetorical agility and chops. When Quintanilla tried to ask a question, Cruz cut him off and then argued that the questions that were posed to Democratic candidates earlier this month during their first debate, which was sponsored by CNN, were far less hostile.
“Carl, I’m not finished yet. The contrast with the Democratic debate, where every fawning question from the media was, ‘Which of you is more handsome and wise?’ … That debate reflected a debate between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks,” Cruz said.
He got in one more swipe at the moderators. “And nobody watching at home believes that any of the moderators has any intention of voting in a Republican primary. The questions that are being asked shouldn’t be trying to get people to tear into each other,” he said.
Conservatives on Twitter cheered Cruz’s rebuke, and condemned CNBC’s Quintanilla, Becky Quick and John Harwood.
“Headline of this debate is going to be about media bias, not about any of the candidates,” wrote Hugh Hewitt, a radio talk show host who asked questions at the last debate.
Matthew Continetti, of The Washington Free Beacon, wrote that it was “frankly an embarrassment for CNBC, which has plenty of conservative commentators, that they settled on this approach.”
Peter Wehner, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote, “The moderators have totally lost control of this debate, and Ted Cruz destroyed them for their bias. It was a brilliant moment by Cruz.”
Mainstream reporters also bashed the debate moderators: “CNBC’s format & approach was terrible. They have good people, but a true disaster tonight,” wrote Politico’s John Bresnahan.
Noting the repeated audience booing of the moderators, CNN media critic Dylan Byers wrote, “CNBC anchors just got obliterated tonight, by the candidates, the audience in Boulder and fellow journalists on Twitter.”
Cruz went on the offensive when asked by Quintanilla if his opposition to a budget and debt ceiling increase deal in Congress right now demonstrates that he is “not the kind of problem-solver American voters want.”
The questions that had been asked that up to that point that Cruz complained about were:
· Harwood asked Trump if he was running “a comic-book version of a presidential campaign.”
· Harwood asked Trump about his tax plan and said: “I talked to economic advisers who have served presidents of both parties. They said 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 around.”
· Quick to Carson on his tax plan: “If you were to take a 10 percent tax with the numbers right now on total personal income, you’re going to come in with bringing in $1.5 trillion. That is less than half of what we billed bringing in right now. And by the way, it’s going to leave us in a $2 trillion hole. So what analysis got you to the point where you think this will work?”
· Quick followed up by saying, “You would have to cut government by about 40 percent to make it work with a $1.1 trillion hole.” Carson said, “It’s not true.” Quick responded, “It is true. I looked at the numbers.”
· Harwood to Kasich: “You said yesterday that you were hearing proposals that were just crazy from your colleagues. Who were you talking about?”
· Quintanilla to Rubio: “You’ve been a young man in a hurry ever since you won your first election in your 20s. You’ve had a big accomplishment in the Senate, an immigration bill providing a path to citizenship the conservatives in your party hate and even you don’t support anymore. Now you’re skipping more votes than any senator to run for president. Why not slow down, get a few more things done first, or at least finish what you start?”
· Quintanilla to Rubio: “So when the Sun-Sentinel says Rubio should resign, not rip us off, when they say Floridians sent you to Washington to do a job, when they say you act like you hate your job, do you?”
· Harwood to Jeb Bush: “Governor, the fact that you’re at the fifth lectern tonight shows how far your stock has fallen in this race, despite the big investment your donors have made. You noted recently after slashing your payroll that you had better things to do than sit around and be demonized by other people.”
· Harwood to Bush: “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 into know-nothingism. Is that why you’re having a difficult time in this race?”
· Quick to Carly Fiorina: “You are running for president of the United States because of your record running Hewlett-Packard. But the stock market is usually a fair indicator of the performance of the CEO, and the market was not kind to you. Someone who invested a dollar in your company the day you took office had lost half of that dollar by the day you left. Obviously, you’ve talked in the past about what a difficult time it was for technology companies, but anybody who was following the market knows that your stock was a much worse performer if you looked at your competitors, if you looked at the overall market. I just wonder, in terms of all of that, you know, we look back, your board fired you. I just wonder why you think we should hire you now.”
· Quick to Fiorina: “Mrs. Fiorina, it’s interesting that you bring up [Tom] Perkins because he said a lot of very questionable things. Last year in an interview, he said that he thinks wealthy people should get more votes than poor people. I think his quote was that if you pay zero dollars in taxes, you should get zero votes. If you pay a million dollars, you should get a million votes. Is this the type of person you want to —?”
A few moments later, Quintanilla came back to Cruz for another question, and prefaced it by saying that it was clear that he and the senator would not be getting together for beers anytime soon.
Cruz, smiling, made a reference to marijuana. “I’ll buy you a tequila, or even some famous Colorado brownies,” he said.
After that exchange, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida went out of his way to get in his own shot at the media. After Trump argued that each of his competitors should get rid of the super-PACs supporting them, Rubio saw an opportunity.
“The Democrats have the ultimate super-PAC. It’s called the mainstream media,” Rubio said. And then, to illustrate his point, he pivoted to attacking Clinton, suggesting that he is running a primary campaign with his eyes on the general election.
“Last week, Hillary Clinton went before a committee. She admitted sending emails to her family saying, ‘Hey, this attack on Benghazi was caused by al-Qaida-like elements.’ She spent over a week telling the families of those victims and the American people that it was because of a video. And yet the mainstream media is going around saying it was the greatest week in Hilary’s campaign,” Rubio said. “It was the week she got exposed as a liar. But she has her super-PAC helping her out, the American mainstream media.”
Earlier in the night, Rubio had responded to a question about the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel’s call for him to resign from the Senate by criticizing the paper.
“I read that editorial today with a great amusement. It’s actually evidence of the bias that exists in the American media today,” Rubio said.
Later on, when one of the moderators asked former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee if Trump has the moral authority to lead the nation, Rubio could be heard in his microphone saying to someone beside him, “It’s unbelievable.”
After the debate, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus slammed CNBC in a written statement. “The performance by the CNBC moderators was extremely disappointing and did a disservice to their network, our candidates and voters,” Priebus said, calling their questions “deeply unfortunate.”
“CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled,” Priebus said.
Unfortunately for CNBC’s Quick, she handed Trump a moment to mock her and the press in general when she failed to provide a citation for a question she had asked him.
Quick asked Trump about why he had been critical of Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg on immigration policy, but Trump denied he had ever criticized Zuckerberg.
“I was not at all critical of him. I was not at all,” Trump said.
Quick said that she thought Trump had called Rubio “Zuckerberg’s senator” for agreeing with him in support of H-1B visas. But Trump again denied it. “I never said that. I never said that.”
Quick was mystified. “Where did I read this?” she said.
“I don’t know. You people write the stuff,” Trump said derisively.
The comment that Quick was referring to? Trump said it. It’s on his website.