Politics & Policy

Debate Moderators Earn Universal Praise in Milwaukee

Cavuto and Bartiromo listen to an answer from the stage. (Scott Olson/Getty)

‘I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the elephant in the room, and I’m not talking about your party’s symbol,” Fox Business anchor Neil Cavuto said as he opened the fourth Republican presidential debate Tuesday night.

“I’m talking about the purpose of tonight’s debate: the economy and what each of you would do to improve it, no more no less. We are focused on those issues, and what you have said on those issues, in your words. And what your opponents have said in their words about your words. That is the agenda tonight: How each of you plans to make America better tomorrow,” Cavuto said. “And so we begin.”

Cavuto’s soliloquy, articulated slowly and solemnly as if to underscore its seriousness, set the tone for a debate that was as much a test for the moderators as it was for the candidates.

Tuesday’s debate came close on the heels of last month’s CNBC debate in Boulder, where the moderators were widely panned for asking questions that many Republicans, including the candidates, felt were unfair, mocking, and unrelated to the declared topic of the economy.

The pressure was on for Fox Business, a direct competitor of CNBC, and by all accounts, the debate’s hosts — Cavuto, Maria Bartiromo, and Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker — delivered what Republicans were looking for.

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“And that @CNBC is how you run a debate,” tweeted Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus at the close of the debate. Priebus was so upset at the close of the CNBC debate that he suspended a February debate scheduled to be hosted by NBC, suggesting that no networks in that family could be trusted.

RNC officials in the spin room were beaming, as were the campaigns and conservative pundits. Republicans who spoke to National Review gave Fox Business rave reviews, praising them for keeping the questions tightly focused on the economy. “Fox Business should really be proud,” tweeted conservative radio host Erick Erickson. “It was one hell of a grown up debate.”

RNC officials in the spin room were beaming, as were the campaigns and conservative pundits.

With only eight candidates on the stage, as opposed to the usual ten or eleven, everyone got more speaking time. The debate rules gave candidates 90 seconds to respond to each question, a span that felt like an eternity compared to the time limits of the past three debates. Candidates then had up to a minute to respond if their names were mentioned.

Even these more generous time constraints were largely ignored for most of the debate. The bell used to signal that the speaker’s time was up was meant to annoy them into silence. But by midway through the debate, no candidate seemed to give it any credence, and they often talked through more than three intermittent dings of the closing bell.

#share#There were almost none of the forced collisions of past debates, when moderators asked candidates to directly respond to some slight, often personal, thrown at them by a rival. But it seemed the moderators didn’t need to instigate those fights — the candidates were prepared to step up and start them on their own, as when Marco Rubio and Rand Paul had a memorable spat over foreign policy. The moderators were often deferential to the candidates on these occasions, ignoring the timer and allowing such discussions to unfold, which made for several of the more substantive back-and-forths in any debate so far.

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At times, the questions seemed to veer into softball territory, as when Bartiromo asked Rubio why voters should choose him over Clinton, given Clinton’s long résumé. The question teed up Rubio’s stump speech, allowing him to deliver a standard line about how this should be an election focused on the future, not policies of the past. John Kasich got a question that seemed similarly tailored to the overarching message of his campaign, when he was asked about how he would balance the budget. And several times, the moderators appeared to be trying to help the candidates flesh out their positions, asking them to clarify their answers, often after they had already talked through one, two, or even three dings of the bell.

The moderators’ efforts to focus on the economy tamped down the traditional media-skewering portion of the evening, which occupied a much smaller percentage of the conversation than normal. Cruz, at one point, suggested the “mainstream media” might cover immigration more like the economic issue he views it to be if people were coming in from other countries illegally and taking journalists’ jobs. But when it came to the moderators, the candidates were generally pleased.

#related#“Kudos to Fox Business and to the Wall Street Journal.#…#As you know, midway through the debate I told all three of you I thought you were doing a terrific job,” Ted Cruz told Cavuto in a televised post-debate interview. Cruz was perhaps the most vicious critic of CNBC at the last debate, getting into a shouting match with moderator John Harwood midway through, and declaring a “war on the liberal media” in a fundraising e-mail the next day.

Ben Carson and Donald Trump, too, voiced their pleasure with the way the debate was moderated.

“I thought the moderators were terrific, very elegant,” Trump said in the spin room. “I thought it was a very elegant evening.”

“I can say the candidates were very happy with you guys,” echoed Carson, who has been among the most aggressive this week in criticizing the media.

The hosts were not shy about trumpeting their success.

“It was a very riveting debate,” Cavuto said in closing the night. “Business issues can be riveting. Because it wasn’t about us. It was about them.”

Tim Alberta contributed to the reporting of this piece.

— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.

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