The Morning Jolt

Bad Debates with Bad Moderators Can Be Edifying, Too

Thank you to everyone who has purchased Heavy Lifting, now the No. 1 book in Amazon’s “Fatherhood” category. (The Kindle edition is number two!) Today I’ll be speaking about the book with Michael Graham at 9:15 Eastern, Phil Cohan at 11:05, Mickelson in the Morning at 11:40, Cam’s show on NRANews.com from 2 to 3, Mike Schikman at 3:15, and maybe another in the evening, schedule permitting.

Bad Debates with Bad Moderators Can Be Edifying, Too

Maybe the best thing you can say about last night’s debate is that the GOP candidates demonstrated they could get through two hours of mostly hostile questioning.

RNC chair Reince Priebus is getting a lot of grief this morning, with people contending he should never have agreed to have CNBC host a debate. Remember, before this cycle, any media entity could announce they were hosting a debate and the candidates decided whether they wanted to show up. This is how we ended up with 20 debates in 2012. The big change with the RNC-set schedule is that MSNBC didn’t get a debate at all. The next one is on Fox Business; after that it’s CNN again, Fox News again, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News/Telemundo — with National Review participating — then Fox News again, then CNN again. 

You hear a lot of “we should have [insert conservative media entity here] host a debate”, and as mentioned above, National Review will be playing a role in the one in Houston. But the cost of putting on a debate is about $2 million. Most conservative entities don’t have that kind of cash lying around, and the networks won’t kick in if they don’t get the broadcast rights and resulting advertising revenue. There are some interesting discussions going on about non-network options — remember, last week Yahoo broadcast an NFL game — but for now, if you want a debate to be seen, you need a television network as a partner.

The good news is, the RNC hears the complaints from Republicans watching:

“While I was proud of our candidates and the way they handled tonight’s debate, the performance by the CNBC moderators was extremely disappointing and did a disservice to their network, our candidates, and voters. Our diverse field of talented and exceptionally qualified candidates did their best to share ideas for how to reinvigorate the economy and put Americans back to work despite deeply unfortunate questioning from CNBC,” said Chairman Priebus.

“One of the great things about our party is that we are able to have a dynamic exchange about which solutions will secure a prosperous future, and I will fight to ensure future debates allow for a more robust exchange. CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled.”

This was indisputably the worst-moderated debate of this young cycle, and perhaps the worst-moderated debate ever. Brent Bozell called it “an encyclopedic example of liberal media bias on stage.” If the moderators at the next Democratic debate exhibit one-half of the hostility, skepticism, and disdain that the CNBC ones did last night, Hillary, Sanders, and O’Malley will have on-stage meltdowns. As Jonah observed, it’s fascinating that Marco Rubio gets a question about his personal finances long after that New York Times story generated scoffing and skepticism, while Hillary Clinton didn’t get a single question about donors to the Clinton Foundation and conveniently timed State Department policy changes.

Because of this, Ted Cruz won the night when he took a rhetorical flamethrower to the moderators, spelling out the dismissive, DNC-talking-point-style questions they had posed to each candidate. He contrasted it with the comparative softballs the Democrats received from CNN. The audience in the hall agreed and judging from the reaction on Twitter, a lot of viewers at home were applauding, too. It was Cruz’s best moment of his campaign so far.

Besides that fantastic moment, Cruz just seemed to be dramatically better last night: His answers were concise, succinct, and direct; he hit the right emotional notes. When a guy gets this much better so fast, you usually want him to pee in a cup to see if he’s juicing.

Marco Rubio had the second-best moment of the night when he declared, “Democrats have their own SuperPAC, it’s called the mainstream media.” Jeb Bush and the CNBC moderators both came after him and there’s little sign they did much damage. What’s fascinating about the incoming fire is that technically he’s running a distant third. The fact that so many people are aiming for him is an indicator that people don’t think he’ll be a distant third for long.

Carly Fiorina was as good as the previous debate. (I like how her glare somehow spurred Harwood to give her a few extra moments at the end.) Her fade in the polls since the last one was one of the stranger phenomena of this cycle. She’s mastered this debate format; now she needs a venue where she gets more time and doesn’t get forgotten about for ten to fifteen minutes at a time. Also, she needs a way to stay in front of the cameras in between debates. “In your heart of hearts, you want to see a debate between Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina.” Yup.

Jeb Bush tried to attack Marco Rubio and I don’t think it really worked for him. Attacking doesn’t seem to be part of Bush’s natural instincts. Explaining policies, maybe, but not attacking. It’s difficult to run for president if you can’t attack a rival effectively, and just about impossible to come from behind if you can’t do that.

It was a strangely subdued Donald Trump, other than an early effort to lambaste John Kasich. Maybe he’s determined he doesn’t need to be at the center of the storm every night. There’s little reason to think he hurt himself last night, and Trump seemed incrementally more policy-focused. Of course, because he’s Donald Trump, he continued to tread new ground in American politics; he’s the first candidate to boast about how he managed to negotiate a shorter debate time, and to point out the network was charging $250,000 for a 30-second ad.

We were told to expect a pugnacious John Kasich tonight, and we saw about half of that. He never quite tore into his opponents as expected, and he made some good points on higher education.

Chris Christie had another speaking-directly-to-the-camera good night; we’ll see if this does much for his numbers in the coming weeks. “We’re seriously talking about fantasy football?” he asked incredulously towards the end of the night. A few moments later, when Harwood interrupted him, he zinged, “Do you want me to answer, or do you want to answer? Even in New Jersey what you’re doing is called rude.”

Certain candidates got so little time, they might have been better served with more time in the undercard debate. Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee — these guys disappeared for long stretches.

I wrote the original story on Ben Carson and Mannatech back in January. I thought the question was fair but mangled in its wording. The simplest explanation is that Carson didn’t know that much about the company, certainly didn’t know about the allegations of false advertising, and probably should have done more due diligence. Whether you think this is a deal-breaker for a presidential candidate is up to you, but in the grand course of Carson’s life, not doing enough research on a company paying him for speeches and taping some videos is pretty small compared to, say, separating those conjoined twins.

Having said that, Carson’s claim last night that he has no relationship with the company is disingenuous horse-puckey.

Completing the awfulness of CNBC’s performance, the opening question about the candidates’ biggest weaknesses was inane. This debate seemed to have more crosstalk. Becky Quick looked bad when she asked Trump where she had heard a quote she attributed to him. The crawl at the bottom of the screen showing us what Seth McFarlane and the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo thought of the debate was stupid and added nothing.

Our Pop Culture Is Dark Because the Obama Era Is Still Dark for Most Americans

A good observation from Ace, examining why movies and television shows seem so relentlessly dark lately:

After Watergate, there were a series of very paranoid and nihilistic films — The Parallax View, Capricorn One, The Conversation on the paranoid end; then all the violent ones about a growing nihilism in the world — Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and so on.

Cultural observers had no problem pointing directly at Watergate (and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr.) to explain the paranoia, and nor were they so blind as to not notice the decay and malaise (and rising tide of bloody crime) of the seventies were responsible for the various violent retribution films.

In the eighties, cultural observers had no problem tracing movies’ focus on wealth and excess for the “Age of Greed” they said was a product of Reagan, nor even in the nineties did they fail to notice that a spate of paranoid entertainments — Murder at 1600, Absolute Power, Wag the Dog — were all rooted in a very definite cultural consciousness that Bill and Hillary Clinton’s co-presidency was a shady affair. You’ll no doubt remember the “Arkansas Death List” emails that circulated about.

Since 9/11, we faced a lot of movies about cataclysm and the end of the world. It’s easy enough to see that connection.

But the Age of Obama has not produced any uplift, nor any respite from the current preoccupation of people with the End Times. As a non-religious person, I don’t mean this literally (though many may), but it is impossible not to note the idea of Apocalypse and Cataclysm is in the air.

Look at the number of zombie films and zombie tv shows — as obvious a metaphor for decay and rot as can be imagined. Or the still-doing-bonzo-business cataclysm fantasies. Even the latest Man of Steel was about cataclysm.

And now add into that the large number of paranoid, rotten dystopia movies.

If the Age of Obama is so swell, if we’re all filled with Hope, why is this age not producing the spate of feel-good, have-fun, get-rich movies the 80s did?

Why are our collective fantasies in the Age of Obama so single-mindedly focused on the idea of dystopia, cultural decay, and ultimately cultural destruction?

Whether liberal cultural critics want to admit it or not — and they seem very much to not want to admit it, because this is so obvious it’s painful, and yet they fail to make this obvious connection — the Obama years are years of economic want, emotional depression, and spiritual chaos, at least as reflected by entertainments resolutely focusing on the end-times and the wretched dystopias that arise after the End Times, when civilization is dead but just hasn’t stopped moving yet.

The Leftovers, The Returned, Revolution, the Walking Dead not only being a top-rated show, but spawning a top-rated spin-off — I dare anyone to find any previous moment in American history, including in the years of paranoia after Watergate, in which our fantasies have been so dark, depressive, anxious and foreboding.

My only question would be: How much of this reflects the mood and perspective of the creative class, and how much reflects the mood and perspective of audiences? If anything, you would think Hollywood would want to tell everything-is-great tales during this presidency. Perhaps they have and they flopped so badly, we didn’t even notice.

Ace notes that the Marvel superhero films are generally cheery and optimistic, but concludes, it’s “almost as if you can’t make a movie rooted in the real world that is fueled by anything other than despair and dread. Any fantasy with an optimistic tone must be a pure fantasy, explicitly occurring in an unreal world.”

Having said all that, allow me to offer a giant, glaring counter-example that just happens to be the top-grossing film of 2014:

Somewhere in this gloomy America, American Sniper made $350 million, and nearly another $200 million overseas.

Maybe Americans are hungry for stories about true heroes in a time as challenging as this.

ADDENDA: A bit of good news this morning: China is ending its draconian one-child policy.

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