When I first heard them, CNBC’s actual questions struck me as substantive and skeptical, though the framing often seemed ungenerous and even derisive. But debate questions, for reasons I’ve never quite understood, are often framed in ungenerous and even derisive terms — the formulation tends to be [perfectly reasonable question] + [weirdly ungenerous kicker] — so CNBC’s didn’t strike me as particularly unusual.
But Republicans felt CNBC’s questions were uniquely hostile — hostile compared with the questions the Democratic candidates received in their debate, and hostile compared with the questions Republicans received in their other debates. The fallout has led the GOP to threaten to pull out of NBC's presidential debate, and for the various Republican campaigns (now with the exception of Donald Trump) to put together a list of demands for future debates.
Ted Cruz lashed out at the moderators after the seventh question. So I went back and compared the first six questions from the CNBC Republican Debate, the Fox News Republican debate, and CNN's Democratic and Republicans debates. I’ve ignored the question meant to elicit opening statements in each debate, and I haven't recorded follow-up questions or interjections save when they were particularly notable.
When you read the questions next to one another, there is a difference between CNBC and the other networks. But what stands out isn't the hostility of CNBC's questions, nor, was it, as Cruz suggested, their disinterest in "substantive issues" or their efforts to gin up attacks — if anything, CNBC's questions were unusually substantive, and they were less interested than other networks in starting fights between candidates.
Rather, it's CNBC's perspective that's different: The other networks asked questions about electability that were implicitly framed as if they came from a concerned member of the sponsoring party; CNBC asked questions about policies and records that were framed as if they came from a critic of the sponsoring party.
Question 1: The comic book campaign
CNBC: Mr. Trump, you’ve done very well in this campaign so far by promising to build a wall and make another country pay for it. Send 11 million people out of the country. Cut taxes $10 trillion without increasing the deficit. And make Americans better off because your greatness would replace the stupidity and incompetence of others. Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?
CNN, REPUBLICAN DEBATE: Mrs. Fiorina, I want to start with you. Fellow Republican candidate, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, has suggested that your party's frontrunner, Mr. Donald Trump, would be dangerous as President. He said he wouldn't want, quote, "such a hot head with his finger on the nuclear codes." You, as well, have raised concerns about Mr. Trump's temperament.You've dismissed him as an entertainer. Would you feel comfortable with Donald Trump's finger on the nuclear codes?
CNN, DEMOCRATIC DEBATE: Secretary Clinton, I want to start with you. Plenty of politicians evolve on issues, but even some Democrats believe you change your positions based on political expediency. You were against same-sex marriage. Now you're for it. You defended President Obama's immigration policies. Now you say they're too harsh. You supported his trade deal dozen of times. You even called it the "gold standard." Now, suddenly, last week, you're against it. Will you say anything to get elected?
FOX: We start tonight with you, Dr. Carson. You are a successful neurosurgeon, but you admit that you have had to study up on foreign policy, saying there’s a lot to learn. 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. Aren’t these basic mistakes, and don’t they raise legitimate questions about whether you are ready to be president?
CNBC’s question stands out in this group for the oddity of its kicker: I’m a comic book nerd, and even I don’t know what it means to ask if something is a "comic book presidential campaign." But it’s not obvious to me that calling Trump’s wild promises into question is any more hostile than calling Hillary Clinton’s basic honesty into question, or Ben Carson’s basic fitness for the presidency into question, or asking Carly Fiorina to attack Donald Trump.
CNBC's John Harwood, however, asks a follow-up in which he says, "I talked to economic advisers who have served presidents of both parties. They said that you have as much chance of cutting taxes that much without increasing the deficit as you would of flying away from that podium by flapping your arms." Again, Harwood’s point is both reasonable and correct, but the language is a bit mocking. So for that reason, I think it's fair to say CNBC stands out in this round — its questions were delivered less respectfully than CNN or Fox’s.
Question 2: CNBC asks its best question, Fox and CNN start a fight
CNBC: Dr. Carson, let’s talk about taxes. You have a flat tax plan of 10 percent flat taxes, and — I’ve looked at it — and this is something that is very appealing to a lot of voters, but I’ve had a really tough time trying to make the math work on this. If you were to take a 10 percent tax, with the numbers right now in total personal income, you’re going to bring in $1.5 trillion. That is less than half of what we bring in right now. And by the way, it’s going to leave us in a $2 trillion hole. So what analysis got you to the point where you think this will work?
CNN, REPUBLICAN DEBATE [to Trump]: Governor Bush told me last week when I read him the quote from Governor Jindal that he agrees you're not a serious candidate. Tell Governor Bush why you are a serious candidate and what your qualifications are to be commander-in-chief.
CNN, DEMOCRATIC DEBATE: Senator Sanders. A Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House. You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?
FOX: Senator Rubio, when Jeb Bush announced his candidacy for presidency, he said this: "There’s no passing off responsibility when you’re a governor, no blending into the legislative crowd." Could you please address Governor Bush across the stage here, and explain to him why you, someone who has never held executive office, are better prepared to be president than he is, a man who you say did a great job running your state of Florida for eight years.
CNBC’s second question was terrific — Ben Carson’s tax plan is a bizarre idea that deserves serious vetting. And CNBC’s question is informed, specific, and framed respectfully. Asking Carson to explain the economic analysis that led him to his tax plan is a fair question. It’s also far from the most hostile way to ask that particular question — if Carson has so much as a theory of the case, no matter how outlandish it might be, CNBC just gave him an invitation to lay it out on national television.
And compare CNBC's second question with everyone else's. Chris Wallace asked Marco Rubio to attack his close friend and political mentor; Jake Tapper invited Trump to attack Bush (and this was after inviting Fiorina to attack Trump in the first question).
When Ted Cruz went off on CNBC’s moderators, he attacked them for, among other things, asking John Kasich to "insult two people" on the stage — a question we’ll get to next. But CNN and Fox did much more of that, and they did it earlier, than CNBC did.
Question 3: Candidate X, why does everyone hate you?
CNBC [to Governor Kasich]: You had some very strong words to say yesterday about what’s happening in your party and what you’re hearing from the two gentlemen we’ve just heard from. Would you repeat it?
CNN, REPUBLICAN DEBATE: Governor Christie, I want to ask you about something that Dr. Carson said the other day. Dr. Carson said campaigning is easier for him, because he's not a politician. He can just tell the truth, therefore, while politicians, quote, "Have their finger in the air to see and do what is politically expedient."Governor Christie, tell Dr. Carson, is that a fair description of you?
CNN, DEMOCRATIC DEBATE: Governor Chafee, you've been everything but a socialist. When you were senator from Rhode Island, you were a Republican. When you were elected governor, you were an independent. You've only been a Democrat for little more than two years. Why should Democratic voters trust you won't change again?
FOX: Governor Bush, you have insisted that you’re your own man. You say you have a life experience uniquely your own. Not your father’s, not your brother’s. But there are several opponents on this stage who get big applause lines in early voting states with this line: quote, "the last thing the country needs is another Bush in the Oval Office." So do you understand the real concern in this country about dynastic politics?
These questions are all similar. CNBC invited Kasich to reprise a speech he had given the day before in which he called his opponents' tax and immigration plans "crazy." Fox repeated an attack line the other candidate were using against Jeb Bush and asked him to respond to it. In CNN’s Democratic debate, Anderson Cooper levied the obvious criticism Democratic candidates would have voiced against Lincoln Chafee — if any of them cared enough to criticize Chafee; in CNN’s Republican debate, Jake Tapper echoed Carson’s attack on his establishment challengers.
None of the networks stand out in this round, at least to me.
Question 4: When Fox News attacks
CNBC: This one is for Senator Rubio. You’ve been a young man in a hurry ever since you won your first election in your 20s. You’ve had a big accomplishment in the Senate, an immigration bill providing a path to citizenship the conservatives in your party hate, and even you don’t support anymore. Now, you’re skipping more votes than any senator to run for president. Why not slow down, get a few more things done first or at least finish what you start?
CNN, REPUBLICAN DEBATE: Governor Bush, in addition to the fact that he's an outsider, one of the reasons Mr. Trump is a frontrunner, Republican voters say, is because they like the fact that he is not bought and paid for by wealthy donors. Mr. Trump has repeatedly said that the $100 million you've raised for your campaign makes you a puppet for your donors. Are you?
CNN, DEMOCRATIC DEBATE: Governor O'Malley, the concern of voters about you is that you tout your record as Baltimore's mayor. As we all know, we all saw it. That city exploded in riots and violence in April. The current top prosecutor in Baltimore, also a Democrat, blames your zero tolerance policies for sowing the seeds of unrest. Why should Americans trust you with the country when they see what's going on in the city that you ran for more than seven years?
FOX: 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. You’ve called women you don’t like "fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals." 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 was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?
This round goes to Fox. The question to Trump is devastating — it’s an attack ad wrapped in a question. And, sure enough, it caused a feud between Trump and Fox News.
But as hostile as the question was, it didn’t elicit any anger from the Republican Party more broadly, nor any pushback from the other candidates on stage. Elite Republicans didn’t mind the question, I think, because elite Republicans loathe Donald Trump and wanted to see his campaign ended. Fox was hostile here, but it was acting as an agent of the Republican Party, not an enemy of it.
Question 5: CNBC versus the Republican Party
CNBC [to Jeb Bush]: Ben Bernanke, who was appointed Fed chairman by your brother, recently wrote a book in which he said he no longer considers himself a Republican because the Republican Party has given in to know-nothingism. Is that why you’re having a difficult time in this race?
CNN, REPUBLICAN DEBATE: Russia is sending troops and tanks into Syria right now to prop up a U.S. enemy, Bashar al-Assad. President Obama's incoming top general says, quote, "Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security." Mr. Trump, you say you can do business with President Vladimir Putin, you say you will get along, quote, "very well." What would you do right now if you were president, to get the Russians out of Syria?
CNN, DEMOCRATIC DEBATE: Senator Webb, in 2006, you called affirmative action "state-sponsored racism." In 2010, you wrote an op/ed saying it discriminates against whites. Given that nearly half the Democratic Party is non-white, aren't you out of step with where the Democratic Party is now?
FOX: Senator Cruz, your colleague, Senator Paul, right there next to you, said a few months ago he agrees with you on a number of issues, but he says you do nothing to grow the party. He says you feed red meat to the base, but you don’t reach out to minorities. You have a toxic relationship with GOP leaders in Congress. You even called the Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell a liar recently. How can you win in 2016 when you’re such a divisive figure?
With the exception of CNN’s Republican debate, this is another question where all networks ran the same play: Candidate X, you’re struggling in the polls, and isn’t it because you’re completely out of step with your own party?
But there’s something different about CNBC’s question. Fox and CNN asked their questions from the perspective of the party. The implicit frame was that the candidate had veered from the party, and so the candidate was wrong. CNBC asked its question from the perspective of a critic of the Republican Party.
Question 6: The difference between CNBC and Fox
CNBC: Ms. Fiorina, I’d like to ask you a question. You are running for president of the United States because of your record running Hewlett-Packard. But the stock market is usually a fair indicator of the performance of a CEO, and the market was not kind to you. Someone who invested a dollar in your company the day you took office had lost half of the dollar by the day you left. Obviously, you’ve talked in the past about what a difficult time it was for technology companies, but anybody who was following the market knows that your stock was a much worse performer, if you looked at your competitors, if you looked at the overall market. I just wonder, in terms of all of that — you know, we look back, your board fired you. I just wondered why you think we should hire you now.
CNN, REPUBLICAN DEBATE: Senator Cruz, Governor Kasich says that anyone who is promising to rip up the Iran deal on day one, as you have promised to do, is, quote, "inexperienced," and, quote, "playing to a crowd." Respond to Governor Kasich, please.
CNN, DEMOCRATIC DEBATE: Senator Sanders, you voted against the Brady bill that mandated background checks and a waiting period. You also supported allowing riders to bring guns in checked bags on Amtrak trains. For a decade, you said that holding gun manufacturers legally responsible for mass shootings is a bad idea. Now, you say you're reconsidering that. Which is it: shield the gun companies from lawsuits or not?
FOX: Governor Christie, you’re not exactly the darling of conservatives. You tout your record as a Republican governor in a blue state. On Facebook, the most people talking about you, not surprisingly, come from your state of New Jersey, and one of the top issues they are talking about is the economy. This may be why. 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 should voters believe that your management of the country’s finances would be any different?
Fox and CNBC clearly stand out in this round for the aggression of their questions. But, again, where Fox frames its question as coming from the perspective of conservatives who question Christie's bona fides, CNBC frames its question as simply skeptical of Fiorina's record.
And this is, I think, why the CNBC debate elicited such anger from Republicans. The Fox News moderators were more aggressive in their questioning and more focused on creating conflict — but Fox News is inside the Republican Party to some degree, and its choice of targets, and its angles of attack, suggested it had the GOP’s best interests at heart. Similarly, CNN’s Republican debate was co-moderated by conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, and so it was clear, again, that the tough questions were meant to strengthen the GOP, not weaken it.
As for CNN’s Democratic debate, it really was a bit softer on the candidates than the Republican debates. And in the cases where it wasn't, it followed the Republican debates in focusing its cutting questions on electability concerns — again, a way of implicitly framing attacks as coming from inside the party rather than outside of it.
CNBC, by contrast, sought to focus its debate around economic policy, and so its angles of attack reflected critiques of the candidates' plans on taxes, immigration reform, monetary policy, and more. But since the candidates' plans on those issues tend to broadly reflect Republican thinking on those issues, the questions put CNBC in opposition to the Republican Party broadly, rather than to individual candidates narrowly.
As it happens, Ted Cruz’s critique of CNBC was precisely wrong. He lamented that the moderators weren't asking substantive questions, when the questions, up till that point, were more substantive than those asked by any other network. But he was right that the questions were different from those asked by other networks, harder for the assembled candidates to answer, and more embarrassing for them to flub. And CNBC did itself no favors by ending some of those questions with unnecessarily dismissive or hostile kickers.
The controversy over CNBC's questions also reflects a tension buried deep inside presidential debates: They are organized by political parties, not news organizations. The Republican and Democratic parties decide whether CNN, or CNBC, or Telemundo, gets to host debates. And the parties want the debates to help their best candidates. The result is that debate moderators try to walk a line of being tough questioners without overly offending the organizing party — another reason electability concerns, which are both a worry for the party and allow for aggressive questions, are so popular.
CNBC, in focusing on policy concerns, picked a more journalistically important line of questioning, but one that the organizing party found much more offensive. The resulting backlash is the organizing party's effort to remind CNBC and all other networks that, ultimately, it controls these debates, and media organizations that want to host a debate and benefit from the accompanying ratings and the prestige need to remember that they are meant to act as the party's partner in these debates, not as its critic.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal is a minority investor in Vox Media, Vox.com's parent company.