Critic's Notebook: At GOP Debate, Candidates Bond Over Bashing the Press

Donald Trump CNBC Debate - H 2015
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Trump and Carson kept relatively low profiles, Cruz and Rubio sought the spotlight, and everyone agreed that the major problem facing the U.S. economy is ... the mainstream media.

Well, it's settled. During the CNBC Republican debate Wednesday night — which had the vaguely sinister title, Your Money, Your Vote — the candidates were able to agree on the one thing truly threatening American society.

The mainstream media, of course.

Despite the moderators' occasional attempts at getting the candidates to attack each other, they largely demurred. With the exception of Donald Trump, naturally, who couldn't help himself early on and made disparaging remarks about John Kasich, ending with the dismissive "You can have him." And Jeb Bush latched onto a question to Marco Rubio about a Florida newspaper calling for his resignation because of missed Senate votes, telling the younger man that he should show up for work and comparing Senate duties to a "French work week." Depending on your cultural tastes, it was either a moment of Shakespearean poignancy or else something akin to Michael Corleone calling out his brother Fredo.

But the pointed questions mainly spurred the candidates to lambaste the moderators themselves and the press in general. Rubio scored big cheers when he declared that "the Democrats have the ultimate Super PAC … it's called the mainstream media."

The evening was focused entirely on the economy, although such presumably relevant issues as the debt ceiling, the minimum wage and income inequality were addressed only in passing. Defending their controversial economic positions, such as Ben Carson's 10-percent, tithing-inspired tax plan, the candidates talked in the broadest of terms, as if admitting, "I didn't know there'd be math involved." When the subject matter became too esoteric, the main sound that could be heard was that of millions of Americans switching channels to watch the World Series.

The evening got off to a surreal start when CNBC anchor Carl Quintanilla, comparing the debates to a job interview, asked each of the candidates to answer the query, "What is your biggest weakness?" The candidates (no doubt relieved not to be asked "Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?") mainly ducked the question, with the surprising exception of Trump, who admitted to being "too trusting." Carly Fiorina said that she had been told that she "hadn't smiled enough" during the previous debate. She proceeded to finish her answer with a big grin plastered on her face that, frankly, made her look mildly demonic.

As usual, the candidates' replies tended toward the simplistic, such as when Fiorina said she could reduce the tax form to three pages. Ted Cruz later outdid her when he declared he could reduce it to a postcard. It's a nice idea, but somewhat unrealistic considering that an average rental car agreement runs longer.

Leading in the polls, both Carson and Trump managed to avoid any gaffes despite frequent pointed attacks by the questioners, and no doubt boosted their standing. Trump got one of his biggest cheers during his closing statement, when he gave himself and Carson credit for keeping the debate to just two hours "so we could get the hell out of here."

There were plenty of moments likely to go viral, including Cruz improbably making the first pot joke with a reference to "Colorado brownies"; Mike Huckabee, talking about Social Security, comparing the Federal government to Bernie Madoff; and Trump admitting that he'd be fine with his employees carrying concealed weapons (the moderators missed a golden opportunity by not following up and asking if he meant his Mexican employees as well).

CNBC commentator Jim Cramer was briefly brought in to ask a couple of questions, his over-the-top delivery somehow making each query sound as if he were announcing a going-out-of-business sale.

Chris Christie has improbably managed to cast himself as the voice of reason in the debates, frequently staring into the camera and addressing the folks at home as if he were a harder-edged Mister Rogers. Apparently inspired by Bernie Sanders' tirade about the attention paid to Hillary Clinton's e-mails in the Democratic debate, he mustered up seemingly genuine outrage over a question about fantasy football.

Demonstrating that he's not afraid to take controversial positions, Huckabee called for the eradication of cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease and diabetes, while Rubio announced, "I'm against anything that's bad for my mother!" On the flip side, Rand Paul, discussing the financial challenges facing Social Security and Medicare, explained that the problem stemmed from the post-World War II generation having "had too many damn kids." Many viewers were no doubt left thankful that their parents hadn't gotten the population control memo.

In her closing statement, Fiorina made perhaps the most honest statement of the night when she admitted that "I may not be your dream candidate just yet." She then went on to add, "And in your heart of hearts, you cannot wait to see a debate between Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina."

Truer words were never spoken. How about we skip the preliminaries and get right down to the main event?