Conservative pundits spurn Kasich’s strong performance

John Kasich in New Hampshire earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.
John Kasich in New Hampshire earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate was a useful reminder — as if I needed one — that these events are not being staged for my benefit.

Late in the proceedings, John Kasich put the finishing touches on what I thought was a strong performance by name-checking the conservative Catholic theologian Michael Novak in arguing that the free-enterprise system needs to be “underlaid with values.” No, I haven’t read Novak, but I was intrigued. Earlier, Kasich had what I thought was an effective exchange with Donald Trump over immigration. (The Washington Post has published a transcript here.)

To check in with the conservative media today, though, is to learn that some on the right think Kasich all but disqualified himself.

“Kasich espoused positions that can charitably be called compassionate conservatism, less kindly mini-liberalism of the sort that he says he practiced so successfully in Ohio when ‘people need help,’” writes the economist Irwin M. Stelzer at The Weekly Standard. Adds Paul Mirengoff of Powerline: “John Kasich annoyingly kept demanding speaking time. He used some of it to remind everyone that he’s the least conservative candidate in the field.”

A neutral analyst, Boston Globe political reporter James Pindell, thinks Chris Christie’s strong showing in the unwatched (by me, anyway) undercard makes him a good bet to replace Kasich in future debates. Kasich, Pindell notes, “backed increasing the minimum wage, bailing out big banks, and allowing 11 million illegal immigrants to stay in the country. It is hard to see how many Republicans will go along with the sentiment.”

Clearly Kasich — a top lieutenant in Newt Gingrich’s conservative revolution of the mid-1990s — has been recast as a hopeless RINO. And the notion that he might be the most appealing candidate the Republicans could put up against Hillary Clinton is apparently not nearly as interesting to conservative stalwarts as his heterodox views, summarized by the PBS NewsHour.

As the debate opened, all eyes were on the moderators. Would they manage to avoid the anti-media controversies that befell the CNBC panelists a couple of weeks ago while still managing to maintain a firm hand? My answer is that they partially succeeded. They avoided the snarky, disrespectful tone of the CNBC debate, and the candidates responded with a substantive discussion of the issues.

But on several occasions the panelists were just too soft. One example was Neil Cavuto’s exchange with Ben Carson in which he tried to press Carson on questions that have been raised about his truthfulness. Carson didn’t really answer, and before you knew it he was off and running about Benghazi.

Cavuto’s follow-up: “Thank you, Dr. Carson.”

Then there was the rather amazing question Maria Bartiromo asked Rubio toward the end of the debate, which I thought was well described by Max Fisher of Vox:

https://twitter.com/Max_Fisher/status/664292269554438144

Who won? After each of these encounters, the pundits keep telling us that Rubio is on the move. And yes, the Florida senator has risen in the polls, though he’s still well behind Trump (who informed us that he and Vladimir Putin are “stablemates”) and Carson.

But Rubio’s over-rehearsed demeanor may not wear well. I thought his weakest moment on Tuesday came when Rand Paul challenged him on military spending. The audience liked Rubio’s militaristic response. Paul, though, appeared to be at ease as he offered facts and figures, while Rubio just seemed to be sputtering talking points.

As for Jeb Bush, well, the consensus is that he did better than he had previously, but not enough to make a difference. “He may have stopped the free fall,” writes Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post’s conservative blogger, “but he was outshone once again by competitors.” The questions about Bush’s continued viabililty will continue.

Carly Fiorina turned in another in a series of strong performances. But they don’t seem to be helping her much in the polls, and there was nothing that happened Tuesday night to make me think that’s going to change.

John Dickerson of Slate, who is also the host of CBS News’ Face the Nation, seems to believe the race will ultimately come down to Rubio’s mainstream conservatism and the much-harder-edged version offered by Ted Cruz, who once again showed he’s a skilled debater.

If that’s the case, let’s get on with it. Tuesday night’s event featured eight candidates — a bit more manageable than the previous three debates, but still too large to sustain a coherent line of thought. (What was that about Michael Novak again, Governor Kasich?)

For that to happen, though, Trump and Carson are going to have to fade. And despite months of predictions (including some by me) that their support would collapse, they remain at the top of the heap. As long as that’s the case, Rubio versus Cruz means precisely nothing.

“The Democrats are laughing,” Cruz said at one point in response to a question about immigration. In fact, the Republicans have given their rivals plenty of comedic material during in 2015. The question is whether that will change in 2016 — or if Hillary Clinton will be laughing all the way to Election Day.

CNBC plays into the right’s extravagant sense of victimhood

272px-CNBC_logo.svgPreviously published at WGBHNews.org.

For Republican politicians, whining about the media comes as naturally as invoking misty memories of Ronald Reagan. It’s a sure-fire applause line, as complaints about the liberal press play into the right’s extravagant sense of victimhood. And there are occasions when those complaints are actually on the mark.

Wednesday night’s presidential debate was one of those occasions. The CNBC panelists turned in a performance that I’m sure was intended as an aggressive attempt to hold the Republican candidates to account. It came off instead as sneering and disrespectful in tone, petty and irrelevant in substance.

Asked about the compromise on the debt limit that Congress seems likely to approve, Ted Cruz responded with a devastatingly accurate summary of the proceedings that had unfolded up to that point.

“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz said as the audience applauded (exact quotes based on a transcript published by The Washington Post). “This is not a cage match. And, you 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 the people care about?”

In case you missed the debate, let me assure you that Cruz was not exaggerating. Those were actual questions asked by debate panelists Carl Quintanilla, John Harwood and Becky Quick. Several other CNBC hosts popped up in cameos, with the unhinged stock-market cheerleader Jim Cramer and the original Tea Party instigator Rick Santelli competing to see who could yell louder.

“All of the highlights — ALL of them — will be about candidates slamming the terrible questions and conduct of debate,” tweeted conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt afterwards.

On CNN, Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus seethed with righteous indignation when Dana Bash stuck a microphone in his face. “I’m very disappointed in the moderators, and I’m very disappointed in CNBC,” he said. Bash and Anderson Cooper, who was on the anchor desk, agreed that they’d never seen anything quite like Priebus’ pique. “For him to come out and bash the network, I was pretty surprised,” said Bash.

If there was a takeaway worth noting other than CNBC’s conduct, it involves who might have actually won the encounter. Count me among those who believed the most important contest was between Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, the theory being that one of them is likely to emerge as the nominee after the novelty candidacies of Donald Trump and Ben Carson fade.

And yes, there was a clear winner. That’s Rubio you see bouncing around the ring, fists in the air, while Bush is lying unconscious on the canvas with his tongue hanging out of his mouth. With his campaign fading and his continued viability on the line, Bush delivered what may have been the worst in a series of uninspiring debate performances, although I would have no problem letting him make my fantasy-football picks for me. (He’s 7-0!)

Rubio, meanwhile, was crisp, focused and able to turn aside tough questions without quite answering them, as he did with one from Harwood about the Tax Foundation’s criticism of his tax plan.

Rubio skillfully went after the media as well. When Quintanilla asked him about an editorial in the Sun Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, suggesting that he resign for missing too many Senate votes, Rubio responded that the paper had endorsed Democratic presidential candidates John Kerry and Barack Obama despite their having compiled similar records. “This is another example of the double standard that exists in this country between the mainstream media and the conservative movement,” Rubio said. Later, after Trump denounced Super PACs (with no follow-up from the intrepid panelists about Trump’s recent close encounter with a Super PAC), Rubio interjected, “The Democrats have the ultimate Super PAC — it’s called the mainstream media.”

But Bush versus Rubio was the undercard. The main event matched Trump against Carson. According to the most recent New York Times-CBS News poll, Carson now leads Trump nationally for the first time, with a margin of 26 percent to 22 percent. Everyone else is in single-digit territory.

So how did they do? I’m not in a good position to judge. I have no patience for Trump’s arrogant anger about Mexican immigrants or for Carson’s soft-spoken absurdities about the Holocaust. For what it’s worth, social-media analyst Dan Diamond tweeted that Carson led the field after the debate by gaining 6,200 new followers on Twitter (he has 838,000 overall). Coming in second was Rubio with 4,200 (924,000 overall) and Trump third with 3,500 (4.7 million). We’ll probably have to wait a day or two for a more scientific poll.

The story that’s likely to linger, though, is CNBC’s conduct. Two generations ago, Spiro Agnew denounced the press as “nattering nabobs of negativism,” thus helping to define the conservative case against the media. On Wednesday night, Carl Quintanilla and company turned in a performance that will be remembered by the media’s conservative critics for a long time to come.

NewsTrust J-hunt: The final five

My stint as host of NewsTrust’s journalism topic area comes to an end today. Here are five stories I submitted this morning:

I could write an entire post on the last item, but I’ll just say this: Stewart is perhaps the best and most important media critic we’ve had since A.J. Liebling.

His dissection of CNBC’s Jim Cramer last night — as well as his two eight-minute pieces lampooning the so-called experts of CNBC (here and here) — will have, I predict, a major and well-deserved negative effect on the network.