The CNBC Republican Debate: Surprisingly Like The Escaped Blimp

Sick and tired.

Sick and tired.

Here’s what I thought I was going to write about: The winner? Marco Rubio. The loser? Rand Paul. The surprise? A mostly quiet Donald Trump.

While watching the third Republican debate last night on CNBC, I thought to myself: Self, you’re going to have to write a straight review of this thing. The candidates are too wonky tonight to be caricatured, and even Donald Trump has reigned himself in significantly. The debate was billed as “Your Money, Your Vote,” and the questions hewed pretty close to the economy. Read: not many social-issues gaffe bait.

Here’s what I thought I was going to write about: The winner? Marco Rubio. The loser? Rand Paul. The surprise? A mostly quiet Donald Trump.

The big question: Where are the EDUCATION questions? (I’m a former teacher, so personal bias, but seriously. There have been virtually none, in any of the four presidential debates thus far).

But then I thought a bit about Ted Cruz’s breakout moment of the evening, turning the 11 candidates from attacking one another, to a joint attack on the moderators. Cruz blasted CNBC, saying, “The questions that have been asked so far in the debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match. 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 people care about?”

And here’s the thing: There is merit to Ted Cruz’s point. 

What Ted Cruz did was study the first Democratic debate and see that the audience went really wild when Senator Sanders refused to attack Secretary Clinton. That would be the “sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails” moment, and it brought the biggest response from that crowd, control groups, and analysts alike.

So Cruz scooped up the moderators’ attempts to get the candidates bickering and retooled them to instead unite all Republicans — on stage, in the room, at home against CNBC. Quite a move, Cruz.

Did CNBC deserve it? Sure. But no more than CNN and Fox News.

The bloated, out-of-control, destructive blimp isn’t prepare yourselves the Republicans. It is the media in general, and CNBC in particular.

Look, news networks are married in an unholy alliance with entertainment. Nothing drives up the numbers like a juicy clip of two major candidates going at each other onstage. Throw a wild, unpredictable bloviator like Donald Trump in the mix, and watch television pundits' eyes glaze over in ratings lust and wonder.

This is not new. Thomas Hirschon’s standout piece “Necklace CNN” was recently on view at the Perez Art Museum, near my own stomping grounds. It’s a gigantic gold chain with the cable news outlet’s bedazzled brand letters as center charm. Oversized and blinged-out gaudy, the sculpture forces viewers to recognize the ties that bind our news outlets to jazzy, hip, popular topics and style. Does a self-styled serious journalist have much in common with Justin Bieber?

Hirschon thinks so. And he finished “Neckalce CNN” in 2002.

Add to this the attention-hoarding the mainstream media bias that does sort of exist and that Republicans can exploit to their voters’ delight, and you see why Ted Cruz got such an explosive reaction last night.

What is amazing and I mean, truly astonishing is how little Americans seem interested in a bloodbath. Whether it's Democratic voters cheering Senator Sanders or Republican voters applauding Ted Cruz, the “normal” people watching these debates apparently want real, substantive talk from their candidates.

Americans don’t just give the “meh” to public slug-fests. They’re actively telling news outlets to stop it.

Wow. I think my own eyes just glazed over in different kind of wonder. Like, a Dorothy-in-Oz idealism wonder. Maybe we really aren’t in a frozen, polarized Kansas anymore.

So here’s a word to future moderators: Ask real questions. Get candidates to talk in detail about their policies (EDUCATION, too!), and stop flying all over the place in an unrestrained, destructive journey in search of the ratings El Dorado.

Because it seems abundantly clear that candidates and viewers, to use Bernie Sanders’ words, “are sick and tired” of it.

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