In January 2012, shortly before South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary, Newt Gingrich wowed a debate audience by going after CNN’s John King. It worked beautifully – the audience roared and former Speaker soon after scored one of his rare primary victories.
Last night’s debate on CNBC featured an eerily similar exchange. Carl Quintanilla asked Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) a good question, which led to one of the evening’s more memorable moments.
QUINTANILLA: Senator 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 that fear of – another Washington-created crisis is on the way. Does your opposition to it show that you’re not the kind of problem-solver American voters want?CRUZ: You know, let me say something at the outset. 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. And, 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?”How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?
To my ear, the result was the loudest cheering of the entire debate.
As for the policy matter, the far-right senator never got around to responding to the important issue the co-moderator raised. Cruz was so busy whining about the lack of substantive questions that he didn’t have time to answer the substantive question. It was that kind of night.
We don’t yet know whether the Texas Republican can defeat his GOP rivals, but Cruz seemed awfully confident that he can beat the press.
It helped set the tone for the entire evening. By my count, there were 21 references to Hillary Clinton, 16 references to President Obama, and 15 references to “the media” – which summarizes the top Republican villains at this stage of the presidential race.
Of course, it wasn’t just Cruz. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) complained nearly as much about the media. When Quintanilla noted that a major Florida newspaper called on the senator to step down to focus on his presidential campaign, the senator replied, “I read that editorial today with a great amusement. It’s actually evidence of the bias that exists in the American media today.”
Rubio was referring to the editorial board of the Sun-Sentinel, which endorsed his campaign – as well as Mitt Romney’s.
The senator later brought up last week’s Benghazi hearings – which even most conservatives considered a disaster for the Republican Party – in order to whine that “the American mainstream media” served as a “super PAC helping her out.”
To be sure, the incessant complaints about media outlets may have worked as effective red meat for the GOP base, but the gripes were also demonstrably wrong. For example, the questions Cruz blasted as trivial were, in fact, quite substantive. The editorial Rubio didn’t like may have caused him annoyance, but it wasn’t evidence of “bias.”
It’s a lazy way for unprepared candidates to avoid uncomfortable questions: dismiss the lines of inquiry themselves as illegitimate and unfair. That way, the presidential hopefuls don’t have to bother with their weak answers, and they’ll face no consequences because their voters hate journalists as much as they do.
And in an ironic twist, the media won’t mind. On the contrary, overnight, a variety of pundits and news organizations could barely contain their gushing praise for Rubio and Cruz, who spent much of the evening condemning pundits and news organizations.
If reality played any role in this conversation at all, the media’s eagerness to herald Rubio and Cruz as the “big winners” of the debate would discredit the complaints that Rubio and Cruz used to get ahead, but I’m afraid reality left the station quite a while ago.