What Dem Debate Hosts Can Learn From Fox's 2015 Tack
A slate of Democratic Party presidential debates are scheduled for the fall. What have we come to expect of the moderators, based on the two debates that took place in June and two more in July? Which of the many questioners have stood out? Another salient query – this one for the media -- is how the two rounds so far this year compare with the crowded-stage debate Fox News hosted for Republican presidential candidates four years ago. Who threw the high heat? Who lobbed lazy softballs? And which approach revealed more about the contestants?
NBC’s Savannah Guthrie was first out of the gate in this year’s Democratic debates, posing a question that challenged one of the leading candidates. “You have many plans – free college, free child care, government health care, cancellation of student debt, new taxes, new regulations, the breakup of major corporations,” Guthrie said to Elizabeth Warren, before asking her response “to those who worry this kind of significant change could be risky to the economy.”
It was a challenge, even a gentle critique, but one Guthrie attributed to others. And it was not hard to handle. It provided Warren with the opportunity to catalog her complaints about the current economy, and to finish with a confident statement: “We need to make structural change in our government, in our economy, and in our country.”
Compare that with the first question Megyn Kelly asked at the Fox News debate four years ago, posed to Ben Carson. With a genial demeanor, she began respectfully: “You are a successful neurosurgeon.” Then out came the rhetorical scalpel; she proceeded calmly to give the doctor a master class in lethal incisions: “But you admit that you have had to study up on foreign policy, saying there's a lot to learn,” Kelly said. “Your critics say that your inexperience shows. You've suggested that the Baltic States are not a part of NATO; just months ago you were unfamiliar with the major political parties and government in Israel; and domestically, you thought Alan Greenspan had been Treasury secretary instead of Federal Reserve chair.” Kelly finished with polite ruthlessness: “Aren't these basic mistakes, and don't they raise legitimate questions about whether you are ready to be president?”
“Well, I could take issue with -- with all of those things,” Carson sputtered, “but we don't have time.”
Guthrie had asked Warren if her ambitious plans might be risky; Kelly had asked Carson if he himself was risky. One question invited a front-runner to put liabilities behind her; the other question asked a political newcomer if he wasn’t himself a liability.
At that Republican debate in Cleveland in August 2015, Kelly clobbered candidate after candidate, including Donald Trump, who took this pounding: “Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don't use a politician's filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women,” Kelly began with a disarming geniality that suddenly disappeared: “You've called women you don't like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.’”
“Only Rosie O'Donnell,” Trump parried, to some laughter and applause. Kelly didn’t let the audience reaction daunt her. “For the record,” she said, “it was well beyond Rosie O'Donnell.”
“Yes,” Trump admitted, “I'm sure it was.”
Kelly proceeded to read what amounted to an indictment: “Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women's looks. You once told a contestant on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who is likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?”
The candidate won the crowd’s approval with the best answer he could come up with: “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.”
But for all the applause, Trump was savvy enough to know that Kelly had hurt him, and had hurt him so badly that he couldn’t help but toss a complaint into his answer: “I've been very nice to you,” he said to the moderator, “although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me.”
It’s remembered that Trump enjoyed a disproportionate amount of airtime during that debate. Less well remembered is that much of that time was devoted to questions that were direct assaults on the candidate.
“Trump corporations, casinos and hotels have declared bankruptcy four times over the last quarter-century,” Fox’s Chris Wallace said, following up with relentless detail about the Trump Entertainment Resorts bankruptcy of 2009. “Lenders to your company lost over $1 billion and more than 1,100 people were laid off.” Wallace was merciless: “Is that the way that you'd run the country?”
If there was a single strategy for the Fox hosts four years ago, it was to attack the candidates’ records. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker came under withering fire from Wallace, who charged that Walker had delivered only a fraction of the jobs he had promised. Wallace pointed out that Wisconsin was toward the bottom third for job growth among states. “Now you're running for president, and you're promising an economic plan in which everyone will earn a piece of the American dream,” Wallace said, exuding skepticism. “Given your record in Wisconsin, why should voters believe you?”
Bret Baier gave New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie the same sharp-elbowed treatment. “Under your watch, New Jersey has undergone nine credit rating downgrades. The state's 44th in private sector growth. You face an employee pension crisis and the Garden State has the third highest foreclosure rate in the country. So why,” Baier asked, “should voters believe that your management of the country's finances would be any different?”
Compare that hard-nosed approach with the conspicuously friendlier approach of NBC’s Lester Holt, the second questioner in the first of this year’s Democratic debates. Holt teed this up for former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro: “Democrats have been talking about the pay gap for decades. What would you do to ensure that women are paid fairly in this country?”
“Thank you very much for that question, Lester,” Castro said, as well he should have.
For his second question, Holt merely repeated his first: “I want to put the same question to Congresswoman [Tulsi] Gabbard,” Holt said. “Your thoughts on equal pay?”
(The question was so second-hand that she simply ignored it, choosing to emphasize her war record instead.)
Whether in an effort to give all the candidates equal treatment, or just due to a lack of imagination, this year’s debates have often fallen back on asking the same question to one hopeful after another.
At the CNN-sponsored debate in late July, it seemed at times more like a cable talk show, as the moderators tried to get the presidential candidates to play the role of political pundits. Jake Tapper put this query to entrepreneur Andrew Yang: “In poll after poll, Democratic voters are saying that having a nominee who can beat President Trump is more important to them than having a nominee who agrees with them on major issues. And right now, according to polls, they say the candidate who has the best chance of doing that, of beating President Trump, is Vice President Biden. Why are they wrong?”
After Yang gave his answer, Tapper said: “Thank you, Mr. Yang. Congresswoman Gabbard, your response?”
After Gabbard gave her response, Tapper said: “Thank you, Congresswoman. Sen. Booker, your response.”
After Cory Booker’s answer, Tapper said, “Thank you. Sen. Harris?”
It’s a measure of the questions’ cookie-cutter predictability that by the time the moderator got to Kamala Harris, he didn’t even have to bother asking the question. He merely had to say her name to indicate it was her turn.
Instead of offering generics, four years ago the questions from Kelly, Wallace, and Baier were decidedly personalized, almost insultingly so. Wallace asked Sen. Ted Cruz, “How can you win in 2016 when you're such a divisive figure?”
Kelly asked Walker about abortion: “Are you too out of the mainstream on this issue to win the general election?”
Wallace asked Trump for proof of his claim that “the Mexican government is sending criminals -- rapists, drug dealers, across the border.”
Kelly confronted Jeb Bush with his admission that, knowing what we now know, he wouldn’t have supported invading Iraq. “To the families of those who died in that war who say they liberated a country and deposed a ruthless dictator,” she said, “how do you look at them now and say that your brother’s war was a mistake?”
Baier reminded Trump (and the audience) that the New York businessman had previously called for Canadian-style government-run health care and had made political contributions to such conservative anathemas as Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.
By contrast, this is what passed for a tough question in the recent Democratic debates: Telemundo’s Jose Diaz-Balart asked Yang how he would pay the $3.2 trillion for his “signature policy,” giving “every adult in the United States $1,000 a month, no questions asked.” It’s the right policy question to challenge Yang on, but the phrasing lacked the bite of personal confrontation that distinguished the Fox debates — and it left unasked the utter paucity of Yang’s qualifications for the highest political office in the land.
The closest the NBC debates came to the confrontational style was when MSNBC host Rachel Maddow accused Mayor Pete Buttigieg of failing the Black Lives Matter movement: “In the last five years, civil rights activists in our country have led a national debate over race and the criminal justice system. Your community of South Bend, Indiana, has recently been in uproar over an officer-involved shooting. The police force in South Bend is now 6% black in a city that is 26% black.” Maddow asked, “Why has that not improved over your two terms as mayor?”
But by far the toughest attacks in the Democratic debates came when one contender challenged another, as when Kamala Harris went for Joe Biden’s jugular for having opposed mandatory school busing in the 1970s. Gabbard turned the tables on Harris in the second debate with a searing critique of her opponent’s record as California attorney general, including the devastating accusation that Harris had “blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so.”
Then again, it might not be quite right to credit Harris or Gabbard with the hardest hits in this season’s debates. The most critical and confrontational questions came from CNN’s Don Lemon. It’s just that his barbs were aimed at a candidate who wasn’t on the stage with the Democrats – President Trump. “Why are you the best candidate to heal the racial divide that exists in this country today,” Lemon asked Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. Up till that point, it was a perfectly innocuous question. But Lemon added this editorial coda: “which has been stoked by the president's racist rhetoric.”
If the coming Democratic debates are to have more drama and reveal more details, the questioners and moderators might want to go to the tape and emulate the example Kelly, Wallace, and Baier set four years ago. Sharper, more confrontational questions, for starters. And let the candidates make their own ideological assertions.