The third GOP presidential debate, held Wednesday evening in Colorado, revealed two key truths: The political media has declared war on several Republican candidates, and the candidates have declared war on the political media.
The GOP's gripes against the media are legion. Over the past several election cycles, they have reached a fever pitch, with the presidential debates largely to blame. The problem, from a Republican standpoint, was epitomized by Candy Crowley's intervention on behalf of President Obama during his crucial second debate with Mitt Romney in 2012. Reeling from a limp and lackluster performance the first time around, Obama needed to beat Romney on foreign policy; Crowley upended Romney's plans by jumping into their exchange on the administration's shifting talking points around the Benghazi attack, and essentially siding with Obama.
Long critical of the "lamestream media," as Sarah Palin once called it, conservatives reserve a particular ire for debate moderators, who do, after all, command an outsized ability to influence how presidential candidates perform and are perceived.
So when Ted Cruz crushed the CNBC moderators Wednesday night, the resulting applause — in the studio and across the conservative internet — was not particularly surprising. The other candidates all quickly caught on. Chris Christie jumped at the chance to wryly cry rude. Donald Trump hooked his closing argument around the way he muscled the network into improving the debate's format. Even Bush campaign manager Danny Diaz got into the act, railing against a CNBC producer about the distribution of speaking time. (Bush came in last.)
But the debate-bashing crescendo came courtesy of Ben Carson, whose own campaign manager, Barry Bennett, said he detests the traditional format and wants to rally the field to demand an anti-lamestream reboot. "There's not enough time to talk about your plans," Bennett griped. "There's no presentation. It's just a slugfest. All we do is change moderators. And the trendline is horrific. So I think there needs to be wholesale change here."
Those critiques are legit. Whether you're a beltway insider or just a Twitter junkie, you know well that debate season is a time for gallows humor, morbid drinking games, and existential boredom among the political media itself.
Embittered conservatives might say that suggests how endemic the cynicism and hypocrisy of that crowd has become. But from the standpoint of a sympathetic political writer, it's not that simple.
The fact is that quite often, candidates who blow it in a debate have only themselves to blame. In part, that's because the media just likes to reward winners. Whether it's Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, or Mitt Romney in his first showdown with Obama, good performances get good press. In larger part, it's because the media loves to punish losers. Candidates who do okay but turn off the media — like Trump — don't pay much of a price in the horserace. Candidates who have a rotten debate night — like Bush — do. And when they do, it's almost never because of a Crowley-esque act of butting in. It's because the debate is a crucible, however clumsy, where a candidate's behind-the-scenes struggles are revealed.
Consider Jeb Bush's one big mistake last night, the one that defined the evening, cemented the narrative, and possibly sank his campaign. Looking for an opportunity to deliver a canned attack on Rubio's spotty Senate attendance record — a talking point his campaign has been stressing in recent days — Bush let loose: "When you signed up for this, this was a six-year term and you should be showing up to work. I mean literally, the Senate, what is it, a French work week? You get like three days where you have to show up. You can campaign or just resign and let somebody else take the job." With Rubio flush from his own knock on the debate moderators, Bush's dig was both weak and poorly timed — and it resulted in this killer rejoinder: "I don't remember you ever complaining about John McCain's vote record; the only reason you're doing it now is because we're running for the same position and someone has convinced you that it's going to help you," Rubio said.
Game, set, match. That one exchange led everyone from The Weekly Standard's Jonathan Last to Slate's Jamelle Bouie to pronounce Bush politically dead. A judgment that harsh, across that broad a political spectrum, doesn't indicate a new low for D.C.'s smug and jaded smart set. It doesn't discredit today's (admittedly dumb) debate format. And it doesn't indict the media elite literally running the show. It reveals that Jeb Bush couldn't prevent a horrendously unforced error — at this stage, proof of far bigger problems than bad timing or flimsy opposition research.
For all their problems, the debates — and those who run them — can only do so much damage to Republican candidates onstage. On debate night, the real lamestream doesn't run through the political media, but through campaigns that could use some wholesale change of their own.