Yes, the Debate Moderators Stunk, But the Candidates’ Ideas Didn’t

If you’ve watched or played much baseball you know that the cardinal rule of umpiring is simple: Stay invisible. Fans tune into the game to see aces pitch, gold glovers defend, and sluggers smack home runs, not watch the boys in blue impact the outcome of the game. A similar rule applies to debate moderators – you’re there to facilitate a debate among rivals, not advocate for a position or pick winners and losers.

That’s why Tuesday’s debate was such a disaster. The CNBC moderates became the story with their trivial questions, their gotcha-style, their slanted  commentary and their penchant for cutting people off. You know something is wrong when the answers that received the most audience applause were about how awful the moderation was.

Sen. Ted Cruz took full advantage, using his rhetorical skills to show just how silly the moderators’ were behaving.

“You look at the questions; Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, can you insult those two people over here? Marco Rubio, will you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?,” Cruz flared. “How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?”

After a tense exchange, Gov. Christie delivered another winning takedown of moderator John Harwood, who simply would not let Christie finish a point.

“John, do you want me to answer to do you want to answer? How are we going to do this? Because I got to tell you the truth: Even in New Jersey, what you are doing is called rude,” the governor declared. ”

But if the moderators were awful—and there’s really no way to overstate just how terrible they were—the post-debate commentary has been similarly unsubstantive.

“GOP debate winners and losers,” reads The Hill headline.

“The 15 most explosive moments of the GOP debate,” was POLITICO’scontribution.

“Who Won the Third Republican Presidential Debate,” asks The Atlantic.

“The 5 big confrontations between CNBC moderators and GOP candidates,” the Washington Post reports.

This is click-bait. Granted, I clicked on all of those links because I’m a sucker for click-bait, but it would have been nice to temper the empty calories of those listicles with some satisfying substantive discussion. Literally none was to be found.

Part of the challenge relates back to the poor moderation.

After all, it’s tough to analyze candidates’ policy prescriptions if the right questions aren’t asked. For instance, there is only so much to glean from answers to, “What is your greatest weakness?,” a question that doesn’t even belong in low-level job interviews.

Another challenge is that the moderators tended to view their job as putting  candidates in rhetorical Catch-22s just to see how they would wriggle out of the situation. Jonah Goldberg breaks down one rage-inducing example for National Review:

It’s a remarkable thing: When Republicans talk about how they want to let more Americans keep the money they earn, they are grilled about how much that will cost. But when Democrats talk about how much of our money they want to spend, they’re rarely held to account for how that would work. That’s because the real storyline — one intimately subscribed to by the media — is that Republicans are greedy while Democrats are compassionate, even though Republicans are the ones who don’t want to take other peoples’ money.

Nevertheless, actual policy did get discussed last night. For instance, on health care, Gov. Jeb Bush discussed the important role of Health Savings Accounts, to encourage savings and add a market incentive for health care. On immigration, Donald Trump discussed how the H1B visa program can lure talented immigrants to stay after taking advantage of our higher education system. On small business, Sen. Marco Rubio explained how he would reverse the negative business formation trend, in which more businesses are closing than opening.  On government entitlements, Sen. Chris Christie explained his plan to avert Social Security’s looming insolvency and stop the escalating cost of the welfare state. On crony capitalism, Carly Fiorina discussed how government regulators’ cozy relationship with the industry they regulate stifles competition and kills small business. On corporate welfare, Gov. John Kasich laid out the need to get rid of the Export-Import Bank and instead focus on creating a pro-growth environment that naturally lures business. On taxes, Ben Carson discussed the advantages of a flat tax, which eliminates some of the harmful distortions contained in our complicated regime.

Sadly, all of those topics and the internal debate over how to solve those challenges has been drowned out by a narrative about the media. The candidates deserved better. More importantly, the voters who are trying to decide on the next leader of the United States deserve better.