Todd Graham: The third GOP debate is one of the worst I've ever seen
CNBC's neophyte moderators were a disaster; Donald Trump did well
Editor’s Note: Todd Graham is director of debate at Southern Illinois University. His teams have won a national championship for the last three years, and he’s been recognized twice as the national debate coach of the year. See his Facebook page. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Anderson Cooper was fantastic. Last debate, that is. And this was never more obvious than last night at the Republican debate from the University of Colorado. It was one of the worst debates I’ve seen in 24 years of analyzing presidential debates.
And it had nothing to do with the candidates or their positions.
The neophyte moderators, all of them, were a disaster. They demonstrated a fundamental truth: whether in an intercollegiate competitive debate, an on-campus public debate or a presidential debate, a debate is only as good as its moderator.
An example: My team recently held a large, public, on-campus debate. Guess who spent the most time researching and practicing? Not my undergraduate debaters, but my graduate assistants, who were serving as moderators. Their job was to ask the difficult questions, have follow-ups prepared and above all: set the tone for the debate.
CNBC’s moderators, a rotating cast of thousands, failed in their basic job description. Control the debate. Be professional. Be prepared.
My “snark meter” was pegging from the start of the overall hostile face-off, and I knew the moderators had forgotten that the candidates aren’t the only ones who should be held to high standards. The debate was incredibly negative, both from the manner of the Republican candidates and the moderators. The CNBC crew was trying too hard to be clever and it backfired.
Yes, I’d love it if Donald Trump acted more professionally in the debates. But he can’t be blamed when the moderators fail to meet their own burden of decorum. When Ted Cruz called them out, he was correct.
They had set an ugly tone.
Two things were particularly painful. The first was the number of moderators. On paper, there were three, but CNBC kept bringing in more and more people to ask questions. At one point, I swear I saw people jumping out of a tiny VW just to ask a few questions before disappearing into a barrel.
With so many moderators, it’s impossible to stick to one line of inquiry or to get adequate follow-up.
And that problem was compounded by two other factors. First, there were still 10 people on stage, and second, the debate was only two hours. So we watched as everyone on stage interrupted each other AND the moderators, while vying for more air time. It was a complete mess, “CHAOS” I wrote over and over in my notes.
The second problem with the CNBC crew was that they seemed unprepared … for both being talked over and for being criticized by the candidates. When Becky Quick asked Trump about his criticism of Mark Zuckerberg and Trump denied it, she was so put off that she then asked Trump, “Where did I come up with this?” and after he seemed stupefied that she would ask a question that was so terrible, she finally conceded, “My apologies. I’m sorry.”
(As it turns out, she needed a commercial break to discover that her own source was Donald Trump’s website! She had been right, but she didn’t know it at the time, nor did she understand how to deal with a candidate who denied the thesis of her questions.)
What is unfortunate is that the debaters and the audience are the ones who pay for it when the moderators fail in their job.
I was looking forward to hearing well thought out and well detailed economic plans from the debaters. After all, this debate was billed as the “your money, your vote” debate and the first debate dedicated entirely to the economy.
This is a serious issue, but unfortunately I left the debate, and I’m afraid everyone else did, with little new information, few answers and no better idea which candidate’s economic plans were better or worse than any others.
Who did all of this help? The frontrunners. If my team is favored to win a debate, I want the speaking times shortened, the cross examination periods discarded and the debate to be as superficial as possible. Why? If you’re the favorite, it’s hard for your opponent to gain traction unless there’s enough time to get deep on the issues.
Carson and Trump cruised in this debate. Trump, and let’s give him credit, was brilliant to demand (along with Carson) the shorter debate. Shorter debates favor the less-skilled debaters. Trump? Carson? You can’t catch them if you don’t trap them on one subject at a time, hold them still and make them answer in detail. But there’s no way to do that in a ten-person, two-hour, poorly moderated debate.
Which brings us back to Anderson Cooper: The last Democratic debate was by far his best showing as a moderator (although admittedly he was not herding 10 candidates). Still he’d learned from previous hosting duties, and he was sharp, attentive and controlled the flow of the debate nicely. The CNBC hosts’ missteps made his mastery all the more clear.