November 2, 2015

FORKEN | Question Candidates, Not Questioners

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On Sunday night, representatives from 13 Republican presidential campaigns — staff from the Carly Fiorina team was absent — met in Virginia to discuss the format of future debates and to decide whether the Republican National Committee would have any role in the proceedings. The assembly culminated after days of backlash ensuing CNBC’s handling of the Republican debate last week. During the debate, Ted Cruz slammed the moderators as untrustworthy while Marco Rubio panned journalist John Harwood for misrepresenting his tax plan. Chris Christie found a breakout moment in questioning the legitimacy of questions surrounding a billion-dollar unregulated betting industry.

The resulting demands from the campaign summit were sent out to future debate hosts, including Fox Business Network and CNN, without input from the RNC, which had previously managed debate criteria and logistics. After some candidates had proposed including all 14 candidates on one stage or creating two randomly selected seven-candidate debates, the actual demands were tame in nature; asking only for two hour limits, thirty second opening and closing statements and equal speaking time.

Days after a handful of Congressional Republicans forced out  Speaker of the House John Boehner, the presidential candidates have moved to squeeze out the Republican National Committee in the debate process, which displays the latest fracture between establishment and dissidents. The CNBC debate was disastrous. But it wasn’t the fault of the moderators.

Perhaps Ted Cruz best summed the feelings of candidates and their supporters with his mid-debate tirade against the media, exclaiming “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 be fair to the moderators, the answer to that first question may very well be a yes. All jokes aside, the questions presented to Mr. Trump — regarding how he’d get the Mexican government to pay for a wall and how he’d deport 11 million people — are squarely within the substantive scope of the landscape Republican rhetoric has shaped.

When mentioning Ben Carson, Cruz was referring to the moderator’s pushback against Carson’s tax plan. The exchange began when Becky Quick asked Carson how he planned to fund the government with a 10 percent tax rate; a proposal that would cut the revenue the federal government currently collects in half. Carson asserted he never said such a thing (Carson flashback to the first Republican debate: “You make $10 billion, you pay a billion. You make $10, you pay one”), and that the rate would actually be closer to 15 percent.

Carson persisted in the third debate, “If you’re talking about an $18 trillion economy, you’re talking about a 15 percent tax on your gross domestic product. You’re talking about $2.7 trillion. We have a budget closer to $3.5 trillion. But if you also apply that same 15 percent to several other things, including corporate taxes, and including the capital gains taxes, you make that amount up pretty quickly.”

But the tax base is not the gross domestic product in its entirety. For this math to work, you’d have to tax a base representing 100 percent of the economy, a proposal that would necessitate a more expansive tax code.

Even more fireworks were in store in a testy altercation regarding the tax plan of Marco Rubio. Harwood started his line of questioning by asking the Senator why his proposed tax plan, as scored by the conservative-leaning Tax Foundation, would give high-income earners nearly double the after-tax income increase compared to middle-income earners. Mr. Rubio deflected the question by pivoting to a discussion of low-income tax scales and then blasted Harwood for writing a story on the issue that had to be then later corrected. Harwood says, “No I did not.” Rubio says, “You did. No, you did.” Rubio gets wild applause.

In reality, it was a tweet Harwood had corrected that referred to numbers the Tax Foundation derived from the Rubio plan. In their assessment, the Foundation concluded that middle-class earners would receive a 15.3 percent increase, while top earners would see a 27.9 percent increase, or about a doubled increase in after-tax income. Furthermore, a March New York Times assessment of the Tax Foundation method of scoring stated, “I discussed the Tax Foundation report with 10 public finance economists ranging across the ideological spectrum, all of whom said its estimates of the economic effects of tax cuts were too aggressive. ‘This would not pass muster as an undergraduate’s model at a top university,’ said Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University professor whom the Tax Foundation specifically encouraged me to call.”

Elsewhere in the debate, Carly Fiorina claimed that, “92 percent of the jobs lost during Barack Obama’s first-term belonged to women.” This is obviously false, yet in the following days Fiorna appeared on CNN and in the Wall Street Journal stating, “No, I’m not using the wrong data. The liberal media doesn’t like data. Perhaps the liberal media doesn’t like facts.”

This past Sunday, Fiorina went on ABC to concede, “In this particular case, the fact checkers are correct. This is what the liberal media always does, it attacks the messenger, trying to avoid the message.”

Luckily for Rubio and Fiorina, the Republican candidates have quickly discovered that any legitimate question pushing candidates outside of their prescribed narrative will swiftly be answered by them questioning the questioner and bashing the media. Facts are attacks and a message need no root in reality, but instead merely needs to be a fantasy of what candidates and their supporters wish to hear. When tuning in to a presidential debate, viewers assume a certain degree of truth. After all, many of the candidates are former or sitting Senators and Governors.

After the debate Frank Luntz went on Fox News to discuss the Ted Cruz outburst, saying, “I’ve been doing this since 1996. This is a special moment. I’ve never tested in any primary debate a line that scored as well as this.”

At a time when debates are setting record-viewership numbers, the notion that candidates will be believed in deceit and rewarded for avoiding criticism and lampooning journalists is a dangerous one. Allowing candidates — in a debate of either party — to perpetrate their own concocted narratives that loosely rely on reality isn’t a debate, it’s a press conference.

Oh, and the question that went unanswered and launched Mr. Cruz into his confession of media contempt: “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?”

Jake Forken is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. He may be reached at jrf285@cornell.edu. My Forken Opinion appears alternate Fridays this semester. 

2 thoughts on “FORKEN | Question Candidates, Not Questioners

  1. Though the candidates’ answers were somewhat disturbing, that shouldn’t occlude you from seeing how HORRENDOUS the moderators’ questions were:

    1) To Rubio: “Well, do you hate your job?”

    2) To Huckabee: When you look at [Trump], do you see someone with the moral authority to unite the country?”

    3) To Carson: “Does that not speak to your vetting process or judgment in any way?” – Quintilla was literally speaking from a script, Carson already denied the accusation.

    4) To Rubio: “But you — but you liquidated that retirement account after the fact, and that cost you about $24,000” – who cares?

    I’d give the Fox Republican debate an A+, CNN’s Anderson Cooper an A, and this one a C-.

  2. The questions were not necessarily bad but the tone of voice and phrasing of many questions were offensive. Tough questions are fine and to be welcomed. Encouraging candidates to attack each other and being snarky are what most intelligent viewers do not appreciate. Would Democrats like it if Hillary had been asked during a nationally televised debate how she explained Bill’s infidelity to Chelsea?

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