Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had a standout moment early in Wednesday night's Republican debate when he went after, not other Republicans, but the CNBC moderators, none of whom appeared to have "any intention of voting in a Republican primary." CNBC's Jim Cramer and Rick Santelli later asked questions a conservative would ask, but the event began with questions from moderators John Harwood, Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla that reinforced Republicans' belief that the network is in the Democrats' pocket. The biggest loser of the night: CNBC's credibility.
Harwood launched the debate with a gotcha question for billionaire Donald Trump. Personally, I like gotcha questions — as long as they are good gotcha questions that home in on a candidate's core contradictions. Many of the CNBC gotcha questions, however, were picked-over bones. Is Trump for real? What about his corporate bankruptcies? A good interviewer addresses old questions with an angle that invites a unique response. Instead, Harwood asked one of those multiple-part questions — you want to deport people, make Mexico pay for a wall, cut taxes without increasing the federal deficit, increase prosperity — that are easy to evade.
There was a clear bias in the language used by the CNBC Three. When Quick asked a question about the gender wage gap, she called it "our cause." When Harwood asked Trump about deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants, Harwood did not refer to the fact that they are here illegally. Indeed, Harwood did not even refer to their immigration status. He simply noted Trump wanted to "send 11 million people out of the country." This was a Republican primary debate, and maybe the folks at CNBC haven't noticed, but Republican voters care about distinctions as to whether someone is in the country legally or not.
Panelists asked the kind of guilt-by-association questions they rarely, if ever, ask Democrats. Quick asked former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina about former HP board member Tom Perkins — who backed the HP board's firing of Fiorina, but now supports her candidacy. Perkins, quoth Quick, "said a lot of very questionable things ... I think his quote was that 'If you pay zero dollars in taxes, you should get zero votes. If you pay a million dollars, you should get a million votes.' Is this the type of person you want defending you?"
If the above questions are fair game because there is guilt by association, I have a request for the MSNBC moderators of the next Democratic debate on Nov. 6: Please ask Hillary Rodham Clinton what she thinks about her new best friend on Twitter Kim Kardashian baring her behind all over the Internet.
In that vein, Quintanilla asked retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson how he could serve on the board of Costco, when "a marketing study called the warehouse retailer the No. 1 gay-friendly brand in America, partly because of its domestic partner benefits." Carson countered that it is wrong to assume that someone who opposes same-sex marriage is a homophobe.
By the way, there will be no 2016 Democratic primary debate on Fox News.
CNBC had signaled the third Republican primary debate would be about "job growth, taxes, technology, retirement and the health of our national economy." I expected questions on the sharing economy. Uber did come up once, when CNBC's Sharon Epperson asked Fiorina if she thought Washington should mandate employer-sponsored retirement plans for small businesses — even Uber drivers: "Should the federal government play a larger role in helping to set up retirement plans for these workers?" It would appear Epperson never heard of individual retirement accounts.
Quick fell down in the preparation department. Thus Trump was able to deny that he ever called Florida Sen. Marco Rubio the "personal senator" of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg because of his support for H-1B visas. Quick apologized when Trump denied the statement — even though it came from his own website. If Quick had been prepared, she would have had a marvelous opportunity to question Trump on how familiar he is — or is not — with his position papers. There was no such follow-up.
Having spent time in pressrooms at national conventions and political debates, I know how my profession unapologetically lists to the left. Everyone in the business knows this is a liberal bastion. But when Rubio asserts the media are the Democrats' "ultimate superPAC" and Cruz sends out fundraising appeals as he declares "war on the liberal media," then my colleagues point at CNBC as a standout malefactor. If only ...