Last week's debate was an inevitable clash between two institutions in crisis: political journalism and the Republican Party. (The Democrats are stuck in the 1960s, so let's leave them aside for now.)
The embarrassing performance by the CNBC moderators is what happens when the "gotcha" journalism inspired by Watergate (and subsequent scandals) intersects with the "news as entertainment" genre born of the 24-hour news channels.
The result is the worst of all worlds: political reporters who are tough on candidates, but in all the wrong ways. They do not have the depth or expertise to ask meaningfully difficult questions. Instead they offer up lazy (and insulting) substitutes.
Yes, the questions posed in the Boulder debate were needlessly confrontational and insulting. But it was equally pathetic that the moderators could not probe and question the nonsense answers. Ted Cruz wants to bring back the gold standard to ward off inflation? Does this man not read the newspaper? There is essentially no inflation – which is why Social Security is not paying a cost-of-living adjustment for the first time in recent memory.
And the gold standard? No mainstream economist thinks that is anything other than folly, as the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago has documented in a poll of prominent economists. Every economist asked – 100 percent of them – disagreed (or strongly disagreed) with the idea that backing the dollar with gold would make the average American better off.
Chris Christie says that we should not combat climate change by taxing carbon emissions. Really? Because that is exactly what would promote more of the energy alternatives about which he spoke so glowingly. And if taxes are such a significant deterrent to other activities – as the whole debate emphasized – why not levy them on behaviors we would like to discourage, like pollution?
Entitlement reform? The Republicans are absolutely right on this one. But ask the hard follow-up question: To get Democrats to do anything other than filibuster meaningful reform, Republicans are going to have to do a deal. What would these candidates be willing to put in that deal?
That's a hard and fair question, but political reporters have turned our elections into something akin to a sporting event, with attention focused entirely on who is up and who is down. The CNBC moderators – and their peers across the networks – had no interest in a real policy discussion and probably insufficient expertise to even have such a conversation.
Of course, on stage we had the manifestation of a political party in free fall. What's happened to the Republicans? The party has allowed its core beliefs to become simplified to the point of caricature.
Small government? That's a defensible and important objective. But somewhere along the way, that traditional Republican belief morphed into the bumper-sticker version, in which all government, and therefore all taxes, are bad.
Fiscal responsibility? We need it. That means matching government revenues with expenditures. That does not mean passing tax cuts without corresponding spending cuts. It does not mean fighting wars without paying for them. And stop making the asinine assertion that tax cuts generate enough growth to pay for themselves. They do not. Once again, economists are nearly unanimous on this point.
Pro-market? Yes, markets are remarkable engines of prosperity. But if you are going to be pro-market, you need to read the whole textbook. Markets do not work efficiently when an economic activity generates some negative spillover (e.g., carbon emissions). The Republicans have ignored this basic tenet of introductory economics – and painted themselves into a silly corner on environmental issues as a result.
And so on. The party has created a great set of bumper-sticker policies and now has a crop of bumper-sticker candidates peddling those oversimplified ideas. Who better to sell policies that have become caricatures than candidates who are caricatures themselves? No wonder the candidates who have never held any elective office are leading in the polls.
The Republican National Committee has fired NBC from future debates. That won't change anything. The problem is institutional. If we treat politics as entertainment, we should not be surprised when we get entertainment. When the Republican cast of caricatures faces the attention-deficit version of post-Watergate journalism, the result is popcorn-worthy.
But not worthy of the presidency. And not likely to change anytime soon, with or without NBC broadcasting debates.
Editor’s note: This article, written by Charles Wheelan, originally published on U.S News