While it’s still open to interpretation which Republican presidential candidate won Wednesday night’s primary debate, there was one very clear loser: CNBC, the network hosting the event.
The debate got off to a bad start as it began nearly 10 minutes late. Twitter immediately lit up with criticism for the meandering chatter CNBC anchors used to fill that airtime.
CNBC does underscore that the only people sometimes more vapid than candidates are journalists talking about candidates.
— Nicholas Kristof (@NickKristof) October 29, 2015
It was all downhill from there as the network’s moderators repeatedly struggled to enforce time limits and keep candidates on topic. Unintelligible crosstalk like this was common:
There was loud booing and scathing Twitter quarterbacking, too. Here are a few of the high-(er, low)lights of the CNBC debate.
The event began with CNBC moderator Carl Quintanilla asking the candidates the worst job interview question of all time: What’s your biggest weakness?
Predictably, almost every candidate tried their hardest to avoid giving an answer.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush didn’t even try: “I believe this is still the most extraordinary country on the face of the Earth. And it troubles me that people are rewarded for tearing down our country.”
Retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson offered a humble-brag: “The weakness would be not really seeing myself in that position until hundreds of thousands of people began to tell me that I needed to do it.”
But the biggest head-scratcher came from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who essentially said he’s the world’s best designated driver.
“If you want somebody to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy,” he said. “But if you want someone to drive you home – I will get the job done. And I will get you home.”
Cruz completely sidestepped a question about the national debt by launching into a diatribe about the quality of CNBC’s debate questions.
“This is not a cage match,” Cruz said. “Look at the questions: ‘Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain?’ ‘Ben Carson, can you do math?’ ‘John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?’ ‘Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?’ ‘Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?’ How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?”
After a CNBC moderator attempted to steer Cruz back to the question, Cruz continued to defend his fellow Republicans.
“Let me be clear,” he said. ” The men and women on this stage have more ideas, more experience, more common sense than every participant in the Democratic debate.”
CNBC’s Becky Quick tried and spectacularly failed to question Donald Trump on his criticism of Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) immigration policy. When Trump flatly denied calling Rubio “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal Senator” because of his support for the H1-B visa program, Quick struggled to cite the source of her information even though the criticism appeared in Trump’s own immigration platform.
CNBC: Where did I read this and come up with this?
TRUMP: I don’t know. You people come up with this stuff.
— daveweigel (@daveweigel) October 29, 2015
Quick attempted to recover later in the debate, but the moment was lost. The most she got out of Trump was “as far as Mark is concerned and as far as the visas are concerned, if we need people, that is fine.”
Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, whom Trump has waged war on since she moderated the first Republican debate of the election cycle, reacted to Quick’s stumble on Twitter:
This is why u never ask a Q like this w/o having your source material at the ready. https://t.co/PsEzpesUhr
— Megyn Kelly (@megynkelly) October 29, 2015
The audience at the University of Colorado seemed to have little patience for questions intended to make candidates reckon with the weaknesses they avoided talking about at the top of the debate. Moderators were frequently booed for their lines of questioning.
Quintanilla drew the crowd’s ire when he pressed Carson about his ties to Mannatech, a medical supplement firm that’s been accused of, among other things, false marketing. Carson claimed he was never involved with the firm and only made a few speeches for the company. Quintanilla told Carson that his image appeared on the homepage of Mannatech’s website; Carson countered that they didn’t have his permission to do so.
“Does that not speak to your vetting process or judgement in any way—?” Quintanilla soldiered on.
“No, it speaks to the fact that I don’t know what was going on,” Carson said as the crowd loudly booed Quintanilla.
Carson went with it.
“See, they know,” Carson said.
CNBC’s John Harwood was greeted similarly when he tried to pit two candidates against each other. He asked Huckabee whether he thought Trump was someone with “the moral authority to unite the country” and was met with resounding boos.
“It’s unreal,” Rubio could be heard reacting off-camera. Huckabee refused to take the bait and instead informed all those in attendance that he was wearing a Trump-branded necktie.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, who sanctioned CNBC’s and other networks’ primary debates, was not impressed by what he saw. He tweeted afterward that CNBC should be “embarrassed” about the way the debate was run:
CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled. #GOPDebate
— Reince Priebus (@Reince) October 29, 2015
I will fight to ensure future debates allow for a more robust exchange. #GOPDebate
— Reince Priebus (@Reince) October 29, 2015
Catherine Thompson is a senior editor for Talking Points Memo in New York City. She came to the site in 2013 and reported on national affairs. Previously, she worked as a research assistant to investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.