Well, that was a big old mess. Thursday night’s GOP presidential debate, hosted by Fox Business Channel, was strange and loose and chaotic and inconsistent. The candidates were aggressive, while the raucous crowd hooted and booed as if the whole thing was a professional wrestling match. Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz went after each other. Ben Carson led with a good joke about his somnolent reputation and then spent the rest of the debate coughing. It was occasionally very good television. But it was a very bad debate.
The responsibility for this falls squarely on moderators Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo, who before the debate told Politico that they planned to aggressively question the candidates and mostly failed to live up to that promise. The moderators were out of sync with each other for most of the night, resulting in an inconsistent tone and rhythm. Cavuto actually cut Bartiromo off at one point as she tried to press Trump for specifics on how he would unite the Republican party. “I’m sorry, just with time constraints,” said Cavuto, before turning toward Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. I’m all for keeping debates moving swiftly, but here that disharmony came across as unprofessional and made it easy for candidates to take advantage of the apparent chaos.
Bartiromo initially seemed to have come prepared with actual questions for the candidates. (“Where and when should a president use military action to restore order?” was her second one of the night, directed at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. This was a fair and direct question.) Cavuto came armed with statements and observations that he transformed into questions by adding, “What do you think?” Sadly, these not-a-question questions were often better than his actual question-questions. I am still struggling to parse his first query to Rubio. “How do you define the threat [posed to the United States by ISIS]?” he asked. “Germany then or dangerous nutcases now?”
Let’s talk about Cavuto’s performance. He spoke as if he were allergic to his own tongue, routinely mumbling and swallowing his words. He slurred some sentences, mumbled others. His outro preceding the second commercial break was so convoluted and arrhythmic that for a second I honestly wondered whether he was drunk. His questions were often long and rambling; not only was it hard for the audience to follow them, but it was easy for the candidates to disregard them. Take this weird and rambling question for Ohio Gov. John Kasich:
You basically understand what Cavuto is getting at. But it’s phrased so inelegantly, and he takes so long to get to his point, that it’s effectively an invitation for a candidate to go his own way. And that’s what happened, again and again, throughout the debate. The candidates routinely ignored the bell that sounded whenever they exceeded their allotted time—especially Cruz and Kasich. “I was mentioned; I get to respond,” was a common refrain. “I was invoked in that question,” said Rubio after an early exchange between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, and without being called on he made this point that just couldn’t wait: “I think we have to get to what this election has to be about,” Rubio said. “This is the greatest country in the history of mankind.”
What was clear Thursday was that the candidates interpret such shaky moderating as a sign that they can say whatever they want. Not only did they interject at will, but they did so in order to say things with no particular substance. Far too often, Cavuto and Bartiromo offered the mere outlines of questions and then let the candidates treat them like pivot points from which they could say whatever. Interrogative minimalism can be a respectable debate-moderation strategy. But on Thursday, it just felt like lethargy.
Update, January 15, 11:34 a.m.: A reader informed me that Neil Cavuto has multiple sclerosis, which could perhaps account for his abnormal diction last night. I was unaware of Cavuto’s diagnosis.