Please don’t shoot the debate moderators

We were treated to a classic man-bites-dog moment at the latest Republican presidential debate.

There the moderators were, CNBC’s finest, lying in ambush with their carefully crafted “when did you stop beating your wife” questions at the ready. But as soon as they tried asking them, the contestants — forgive me, candidates — counter-attacked.

“How dare you ask me to explain my positions, you biased liberal media hack” was the general theme. And it worked. The crowd, a conservative group, roared its approval again and again.

The media is liberal, they say. It’s biased against conservatives and it makes things up. A God-fearing, free-enterprise-worshipping American can’t expect a fair shake from them.

Those are the inaccurate messages that went out, and I’m afraid that a frightening number of people bought it.

It’s frightening because once the public assumes that the media is dealing from a stacked deck and can’t be trusted, it loses faith in the very people, the only people, who can protect it from the lies of lying politicians. Lord knows the press does a lousy enough job of sorting out those lies anyway, but to remove the shield journalists offer altogether is unimaginable.

Besides, the CNBC-broadcast debate was replete with examples of the moderators letting the candidates get away with murder.

Ask Senator Marco Rubio, who seems to have become the favorite of pundits everywhere, any question of substance, and he takes you directly to the hardships suffered by his father the bartender and his mother the cleaning lady.

His jujitsu act was particularly impressive when he was asked about his appalling record in managing his personal finances.

Rubio dismissed the charges of over-spending, over-borrowing, and generally getting in over his head, and quickly played the “I didn’t inherit a million dollars” card — followed by a return to the story of his father the bartender. It was game, set, and match. And we still don’t know how a guy who can’t balance his checkbook can hope to balance the federal budget.

The crew who did the questioning has taken a fearful beating from post-debate analysts, some of it deserved, some of it not.

The questioners were faced with a difficult task: how to get the candidates to stop dodging legitimate questions. In trying I thought they occasionally crossed the line between penetrating and snarky but — hey — it’s television. You were expecting good taste?

Every GOP debate features some candidate or another complaining about liberal media bias. But it was left to Senator Ted Cruz to blow the CNBC panel out of the water.

He picked off four or five questions that had been asked, mischaracterized them a bit, and compared them with the softer questions Democrats were asked at their debate. It wasn’t true, but it was a brilliant riff. The interrogators were left looking guilty, like students who’d been caught cheating on an exam.

He ended by stating that he doubted that any of the journalists there were going to vote Republican any time soon. It was the kind of remark that had the sense of a closing argument at a trial. The journalists never recovered.

The format of these so-called debates doesn’t allow any space for the moderators to defend themselves from attack by a candidate. If it did, and if I were a brave highly paid network journalist on the panel, I would have said:

“Listen Senator, it’s none of your business whom I vote for. That’s why it’s called a secret ballot.

“But I’m not here to be your best friend. I’m trying to get you to reconcile the inconsistencies in your record and your policies so that voters can figure out who you are and what kind of president you might be. So far, my colleagues and I have been unsuccessful, but we keep trying.

“In the meantime, if you would just answer the damn questions, we’d get along fine.”

That probably wouldn’t change things much, but it would sure make me feel a lot better.

Donald Kaul, former Des Moines Register columnist, lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and writes for

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