Now that’s how you moderate a debate.
Fox Business got its turn as the GOP held its 4th debate in the land of beer and cheese last night. In the end, these was no whine to be found, as candidates and party honchos alike all took no issue with the questioning. Those who didn’t watch will likely interpret that sentiment as the moderators exercising in a game of primetime softball, but that wasn’t even remotely the case. Instead — and most media pundits agree — the questions were substantive, relevant and without the kind of editorial marinated in snark that we saw during the last such event on CNBC. And as a result, the answers provided finally showed some contrast between the candidates on stage that went beyond the distractions of personality differences and sniping prompted by questions oftentimes designed to create those kind of responses to produce juicy-but-empty soundbites.
In the end, what we got was a debate that very much resembled the lone Democratic debate moderated mostly by CNN’s Anderson Cooper: the candidates were invariably civil with one another and stuck to policy and overall perspective/worldview on what their presidency would look like on economic and some foreign affairs. There were some dustups, of course, but the heated debate was compelling in highlighting the stark contrasts between Ted Cruz and John Kasich on how they would handle a large fiscal crisis in terms of bank bailouts, or Marco Rubio’s worldview vs. Rand Paul’s on military budgets and strategy.
What this debate also succeeded at — thanks to its specific, if not relatively wonky policy questions — was illustrating the lack of depth of both its frontrunners (depending on which poll you read) on foreign policy. Donald Trump provided the same, non-specific, ambiguous answer on how he would handle Syria, Iraq and ISIS. Ben Carson showed he’s out of his depth on the topic as well (almost seemingly teaching himself what Special Ops means by clinically defining it in his first answer on the topic around the President’s newly-announced ISIS strategy).
As for those who shined, it’s easy to call the winners Rubio, Cruz and Fiorina in that order. All were — and this is a recurring theme — simply the most impressive, commanding people on the stage. If you’re looking for the establishment candidate with the most momentum, it’s clearly the Florida senator. Cruz will get a small bump as he continues to solidify himself into a decent position of low double-digits, but his general electability is still a huge question. As for Fiorina, she won’t get the kind of bump she got after Round 2 in California, and how she gave back those 12 points she gained so quickly is yet another mystery of this maddening-to-predict process.
As for Jeb Bush, he didn’t hurt himself but isn’t exactly built for making big splashes in these situations either. As one Tweet noted last night, listening to Bush is like watching someone trying to learn how to drive a stick-shift: The halting starts and stops are uncomfortable to absorb. Trump was subpar, throw out the usual barbs which feel tired, but will likely hold serve in polling (predictions on his standing have proven to be an exercise in futility for any and every pundit at this point). Carson was weak (outside of his unique closing statement around the number of people who have died due to drug-related deaths, suicide by veterans and national debt added during the running time of the debate) but that never seems to matter either. Kasich was combative, often contrarian (particularly on immigration and challenging Trump’s deportation and tax plans), but has little to lose in trying a different approach. Rand Paul actually had his best night, but his polling is so dismal that it won’t matter.
As for FBN and moderators Neil Cavuto, Maria Bartiromo and Gerard Baker (Wall Street Journal), they conducted themselves exactly as advertised in this space yesterday: professionally, staying largely invisible to allow the candidates to be the post-debate story, and asking up follow up questions when warranted. Note: it wasn’t a perfect production, however, as time and again said moderators allowed every candidate to blow through the egg timer/deli-counter bell that was supposed to serve as a red light to stop talking. Instead, it was more like a yellow light on a busy road, more like a 10-second bell in boxing used the warn fighters the round was about the end but to keep throwing punches. Some candidates, particularly Fiorina and Kasich, went up to thirty seconds beyond their allotted time.
That said, the moderators kept the trains moving and seemingly no one on stage was blatantly ignored for too long. Having only eight candidates (as opposed to 10 or 11) likely helped in that regard.
“Business debates can be riveting. Because it wasn’t about us, it was about them,” Neil Cavuto explained in taking a clear shot at CNBC as he ended the event.
And that about summed it up if the post-debate dialogue is any indication: Mostly everyone is talking about the candidates, the answers, the substance that finally existed consistently throughout the night. FBN earns an A-minus, which is four grades up from its primary TV business competitor.
Follow Joe Concha on Twitter @JoeConchaTV
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.