Fox Business' Neil Cavuto Talks GOP Debate Questions, CNBC Backlash, Trump's "Nuanced" Economic Plan

Allison Michael Orenstein
Neil Cavuto

Network senior vp and Thursday's moderator, who just re-signed to a multiyear deal, also discusses living and working with multiple sclerosis and Roger Ailes' understanding of his medical issues: "He said, 'We'll build a ramp to your set. We'll find a way to get your fat ass up there.'"

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Neil Cavuto is preparing to moderate his second Republican debate for Fox Business Network. This after the Roger Ailes-led business news network hosted zero debates during the 2012 presidential cycle. Thanks to Donald Trump and a wide-open race, FBN's November event delivered a record 13.5 million viewers and helped catapult FBN to the No. 4 spot in all of cable primetime for the week, so expectations are high for the Jan. 14 rematch. Cavuto — who hosts the two-hour Cavuto: Coast to Coast weekdays at noon on FBN and Your World With Neil Cavuto, his 4 p.m. program on Fox News Channel — also serves as senior vp and managing editor at FBN. There admittedly is a ratings chasm between top-rated Fox News and FBN, which was launched in 2007 and is now in more than 80 million homes. But FBN is growing; viewership has increased by nearly 30 percent since the debate, coming within 100,000 viewers of CNBC. (Bloomberg is not rated by Nielsen.) And FBN notched triple-digit growth in 2015, the most of any cable network, according to Nielsen.

People are "getting exposed to it, not being offended by it, not being bored by it," says Long Island-born Cavuto, who began his career at the Indianapolis News and has been at Fox since its inception in 1996. The addition of veteran CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo, who will once again co-moderate the debate with Cavuto, also has helped. Mornings With Maria, launched last June, was up 29 percent in the demo compared to previous timeslot occupant Don Imus. Cavuto, 57, also is a veteran of CNBC, where he honed his business news chops, as well as PBS, where he served as New York bureau chief for Nightly Business Report. But it's clear that Fox is where he feels at home. A cancer survivor who also is living with multiple sclerosis — he was diagnosed in 1997 — Cavuto has a grown daughter, Tara, and two sons, Jeremy, 14, and Bradley, 13, whom Cavuto and his wife, Mary, adopted when they couldn't have any more children of their own. He says Ailes has been particularly understanding about his medical issues. "He wanted me to spell out for him what happens with MS," he recalls. "I'm crying as I'm telling him this, and I said, 'Well, I might lose the use of my legs.' He said, 'Well, we'll build a ramp to your set. We'll find a way to get your fat ass up there.' And so I felt the love." The love is still there apparently. Ailes just re-signed Cavuto to a new multiyear deal.

Pat Boone's right shoe, signed and given to Cavuto by Boone, and a Lego version of the White House assembled by Cavuto's son Jeremy. 

We've had five GOP debates, and this will be the third on the economy. How do you keep the questions fresh?

You keep them topical. There are only so many questions you can ask about jobs and GDP and all that stuff. If we were doing the debate in the middle of the big sell-off in China and Donald Trump's views on China, you can almost tailor-make any issue for that. You could do the same with the president's gun control proposals, bypassing Congress, executive actions, how [the candidates] feel about that. The president has made gun control a big theme. So you just go on the basis of what's news.

How involved is Ailes in debate prep? Do you confer with him?

Not really. He'll just want to know what we're looking at. You are freshening things up, you are looking at news, you are being fair to them. Don't be snide, it's not about you, the whole nine yards. A lot of moderators want to make these debates about them, with gotcha questions or even inordinately long questions. I just think you want to get a really good discussion going. No one remembers who asked Ronald Reagan in 1984 whether he was too old to be president, we just remember his response, that he wouldn't hold Walter Mondale's age and lack of experience against him. I want to be that guy. I think Maria Bartiromo wants to be that person as well. Our questions will facilitate a good debate without being silly.

The Republicans complained about CNBC's questions. Do you think those complaints were warranted?

Sometimes Mother Teresa could be asking the questions, and if you're a candidate in trouble or down in the polls or your donors are backing away, you're going to lash out. With a couple of weeks to go [before the first caucuses and primaries], they're going to get desperate. We should be cognizant of that. If we had the Fox News debate, the first one [last August] today, it might be a very different debate. So it's pressure city.

Cavuto's adopted sons, Jeremy and Bradley, are teenagers, and Cavuto laughs: “They wear me out with the attitude and the texting; they're pissing me off.”

Have you had conversations with the DNC about doing a debate?

We have always wanted to do it. I have heard very nice things from Democratic candidates. But people who make these decisions are beyond my pay level. This is the top of the Democratic Party. It's their call. I do think it's important for all networks to be involved.

Will so many Republican debates ultimately hurt the candidates?

I never think debates hurt. All those debates [between] Hillary and Barack were signature events. And you could see the learning arc of then-Sen. Obama and how comfortable he got. I can remember in 1992, the Democratic debates with Bill Clinton and the six other candidates whom we figured had no chance at all against George Bush Sr. In fact, they called them the seven dwarfs. But this one guy, Clinton, stood out. So my point is that debates are almost always good unless you screw up, unless you're a disaster.

What do you think of the candidates' economic proposals? Trump has proposed this highly controversial one-time 14 percent tax on wealth to eliminate the national debt.

It's a little nuanced, which is odd for someone like Trump to be nuanced at all. He pays for these big tax cuts up front [by giving] a one-time low tax for all this money held abroad [and] surtaxes that he's going to do on the superrich guys. We've crunched all these numbers a variety of ways — I'm pretty good at math — and you can come up with all sorts of estimates.

What do you think of Trump's TV strategy? Or his first commercial?

He is blessed by the fact that he shows up and there are throngs. I know many have criticized the commercial. I guess it was Moroccans, not Mexicans, whatever. But I will say this, the best defense is a good offense. He has doubled down on the Muslim thing, and it doesn't hurt him in the polls.

More than 13 million people watched the previous FBN debate. How do you turn those people into regular viewers?

It is a challenge. I'm aware of the difference between my ratings on Fox News and my ratings at Fox Business. But the fact is the growth in Fox Business has been exponentially larger. [Last spring], we brought Maria Bartiromo to mornings, and they asked me to do a couple hours during the day on top of my [afternoon program] on Fox News, which I was happy to do. And it clicked. The timing was good, the personalities were very different.

What did you think of The Big Short?

I thought it was very clever. They could have fleshed it out a little bit more. They made it look like brokerage houses and banks were in a cabal to destroy the economy. And no doubt some of them are sinister SOBs. But they were egged on by government. The government loved what was happening because we wanted to make owning homes a birthright, not a goal. Democrats had a part in that; Republicans had a part in that.

CNBC no longer relies on Nielsen because it says Nielsen does not measure its out-of-home viewers accurately. Are you concerned about that?

It's a very tough metric. And it's true we're on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, as is CNBC. So there are thousands of people running around seeing it with no way to capture that audience. I don't know how you correct it. Nielsen is pretty much the only game in town. There are other [companies] that try to measure [out-of-home viewing] differently. But you don't cut off your nose to spite your face.

Cavuto with George W. Bush in 2008. 

What made you want to become a financial journalist?

I went to college to be a priest. I like journalism. So I was going to be a priest who taught journalism. But there are a lot of sacrifices that I didn't want to make. I always had a love of politics, of numbers and economics. I remember my dad said when I dropped the priesthood thing, "Well good, there's no money in it." And then when I got my first newspaper job he said, "Only you could find the job that pays less than the priesthood."

In 2014, you wrote a heartfelt essay about your struggles with cancer and MS in which you revealed that you memorized your own copy in case you couldn't read the teleprompter.

Now I have to wing all my shows because it's that bad. Multiple sclerosis is a mercurial disease. You have no control over your body. You're just walking along and you fall or your eyesight can go in or out. Now I don't have the option of reading [the prompter]. Even at the last debate I had to memorize what I was going to say as we started the debate. But it's minor adjustments. I've been lucky in my career. Financially I've done OK. I'm a long way from my priest-to-pauper move. But it's a humbling experience. And I wanted to remind people who deal with it that they're not alone. I wasn't trying to do that to garner sympathy but just to put it in perspective. I mean, my kids called me Daddy with the wiggly legs when they were little. But it didn't get in the way of doing the things we wanted to do. We adopted these boys when they were 2 and 3 years old. A lot of people said, "Are you f—ing nuts?!" But we did it anyway. They wear me out now with the teenage attitude and the texting. But by and large they're great kids. And I wouldn't take anything back. So my message is don't let it limit you, don't let it stop you. Don't say, "Well because I have this, I can't do this."

You also wrote that getting cancer and MS were the best things that ever happened to you.

Before I had either of the diseases I really was an ass. I was so career-centric, stepping on people, doing whatever it took to get ahead. And I later realized you don't have to do any of that crap. You could be a good person, or try to be, and still have a good life. So I think it was God's way of saying I'm going to slap you around a couple of times and bring you down a peg or two. I know this sounds crazy but I wouldn't trade it. Yeah, I'd like to have a little better mobility. I'd like my eyesight to be back to what it was. I'd like the twitches and the headaches and all the other stuff to go. But I think it's kept me real. It's kept me grounded.

With the Obamas and son Jeremy at the White House Christmas party in 2012. “He didn't understand why he had to wait in line so long,” says Cavuto, of the receiving line that can stretch for hours.