This may be officially the 4th round, but it could be easily argued that Republicans will hold its truly first presidential debate on the one issue that truly matters most to voters tonight on Fox Business:
Much has been written here and elsewhere that we’re already witnessing the craziest election cycle in this country’s history, and we’re still about three months out from the Iowa Caucus. Much of the drama from this made-for-cable-news reality show comes from the GOP side of the house… a side that once had 17 candidates and still somehow has almost that many. It’s all a very imperfect combination of the thin-skinned outsiders (Trump and Carson), social media’s lack of filter (which Trump exploits every 12-37 minutes), rattled establishment players (primarily Jeb!), a befuddled candidate who looks at the outsiders and shakes his head in disbelief they have the support they do (Kasich), jolly entertainers (Christie, who is infinitely more likable than anyone expected), and relatively young Senators looking to be the perfect contrast to Hillary (Rubio, Cruz). And that list only includes a little over half the field.
And with this dream reality cast comes big-time ratings when they all get together on stage: Fox drew 25 million for Debate 1, CNN 24 million for Debate 2, CNBC 14 million for Debate 3… all blowing away records for the most-watched events in the respective histories of those networks. Fox Business gets its turn now, but rest assured you’ll be watching a much different telecast tonight. Does that mean even more fireworks? Actually, it means quite the opposite. Let’s use a golf analogy (OK, stay with me) to make the point as to why:
In golf when putting, the player who is away (further from the hole) putts first. This often plays to the advantage of the player putting next if the balls are in a close proximity… because after the first player putts, the second can get a good read on the break and speed of the green. It’s the closest thing to a roadmap that exists in a sport where every hole, every green is different.
Same goes for Fox Business tonight: CNBC has already putted courtesy of its disaster of a debate two weeks ago. RNC Chair Reince Preibus called it a “crap sandwich“. HBO’s Bill Maher agreed with Ted Cruz’s characterization of it (“This is not a cage match!”). Cats and dogs, living together…mass hysteria.
To that end, Fox Business and its moderators, thankfully only two in the form of Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo, now have a roadmap not so much on what to do, but what not to do: Don’t present editorials disguised as questions (such as John Harwood’s “comic book campaign” query to Trump, an opening question Harwood is still quite proud of). The thought also here is that the eight candidates (thankfully only eight) will not be asked right out of the gate to describe their biggest weakness. And if either moderator reads a quote back to someone on stage, the prediction here is the source of said quote will be there at the ready if challenged.
But the underlining story — let’s call it the media bubble undercurrent… and remember, you are reading Mediaite — will be FBN’s attempt to show CNBC how to correctly handle a presidential primary debate. Cavuto told Hadas Gold of Politico in a debate preview interview that he “hopes to be invisible”. Bartiromo says she now “has her marching orders” after seeing the backlash CNBC received from basically everyone (save for Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews) on, again, how not to moderate.
In the end, the best debate moments — the ones that matter — come from the candidates themselves (Reagan to Carter, Bentsen to Quayle, Gore invading Bush space and 43’s reaction…take your pick). For the first three debates, the economy — positions and solutions on debt, jobs, growth, taxation — have barely been broached despite a total of seven hours of questions and answers thus far. Know this: Every poll in the modern era going into any election puts the economy and jobs as the most important issues by a country mile (despite a very loud media minority insisting its climate change or abortion rights, which don’t even rank in the Top 10; Pew poll from 2008 and 2012 below). Immigration, if anything, will see the biggest bump in voters priorities in 2016.
All of that said, tonight’s debate presents a rare opportunity for actual substance (yes, substance) to rule the post-debate dialogue. Debate 1 aftermath–despite a solid job by the moderators (Bret Baier, Kelly, Chris Wallace) of asking tough questions all night–was all about Trump’s problem with Megyn Kelly (mostly due to Trump dominating every news cycle). Debate 2 postgame was all about the candidates being pitted against each other per Jake Tapper’s confrontation-inducing approach. Debate 3’s takeaway focused not on the candidates themselves in terms of positions or policy, but the network broadcasting the event (CNBC). Remember, FBN — who struggled for years ratings-wise but has found its footing in the past year with big wins over CNBC despite being in 11 million fewer homes — is ultimately headed by chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, who used to run CNBC as president. As for Cavuto and Bartiromo, they also have CNBC anchor on their resumes, with Cavuto coming over with Ailes to launch Fox News in 1996, while Bartiromo — arguably the face of CNBC for years — jumped to Fox early last year.
“We’re business journalists. We’re nerds, we should embrace who we are, we want to stick to these subjects,” Cavuto explained to Politico, adding later, “Don’t trivialize this, don’t ‘gotcha’ this, don’t make this into something it’s not. It’s a debate on economic issues, it’s not Access Hollywood.”
Republicans take to the stage again tonight. Substance — the kind of important stuff that resonates well after the night is over — has been elusive in the first three debates for various reasons.
But FBN has seen CNBC’s putt. They have their marching orders on what not to do. Cavuto and Bartiromo are pros whom lucid observers can say are objective journalists who also know when to speak, when to shut up, and how to ask a question without making it about them.
Prediction: 17 million viewers. Like we witnessed with Anderson Cooper and CNN for the lone Democratic debate, the reviews will be solid regarding not only the questions asked, but how each is presented.
And more importantly, we might actually learn something about the perspectives and principles on the most important issue in the minds of voters from those seeking the highest office in the land.
Follow Joe Concha on Twitter @JoeConchaTV
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.