Staring down the media.

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The Republican Enemy List

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

If Twitter reaction to Wednesday night's Republican debate is any indication, one big media takeaway is going to be the early exchange between Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush over Rubio’s missed votes in the Senate -- with Rubio scoring (the media judges declare) a knockout.

If that in fact becomes the clip everyone plays, and if it produces a significant polling bump for Rubio, then the question becomes what Republican party actors – politicians, campaign and governing professionals, activists and donors, Republican-aligned interest groups and more – do about it. Will they finally get off the fence and declare for Rubio? Or are they willing to give Bush more time? Or did another candidate impress them?

Despite what you'd think, we can’t know the answers in the immediate aftermath of the event, but this is what to watch for.

The big winners in the debate? Those Republican voters who ask for denunciations of the media -- and not much more than that. Not all Republican voters are like that, by any means, but the ones who are were driving this debate.  Newt Gingrich demonstrated that four years when he attacked the moderators, and this time the whole field was on board. The most effective one was the full-out Ted Cruz assault in which he listed every “unfair” question from the CNBC panel. But he wasn't the only one to score points on this subject. Rubio’s response in answering the question on his absenteeism was to blame the media, and that set up his confrontation with Bush. Sooner or later, the other candidates all piled on the media.

Granted, CNBC did a lousy job. There were far too many gotcha questions, and for a debate that was promoted as focusing on jobs and the economy we got plenty of personal attack questions, whether it was how Rubio handled his personal money, or on Carly Fiorina’s record in business, or about Donald Trump’s bankruptcies. But the attacks on the media were substance-free pandering to closed-information-loop Republican voters. If that’s what they wanted, that’s what they got.

Serious discussion of the issues? Rubio was about the only one to talk about policy in a substantive, reality-based way. The rest, when they weren’t attacking the press, were all about this: The government is bad! Washington is bad! The establishment is bad! Hillary Clinton is bad!

And when they venture into details, we were repeatedly told by multiple candidates that Social Security is in dire trouble and that young people won’t see benefits when they retire. That is nonsense – unless someone does something to change the current policy (there’s a relatively small imbalance in Social Security over the long run, but it’s not difficult to fix or getting worse over time). Ted Cruz went on a diatribe about “easy money” and cherry-picked a few items on rising prices (beef, for example). But even for the single moms he talked about, inflation is hardly the main problem they face. 

My favorite? Fiorina touted the benefits of 401k plans while denouncing government involvement in retirement planning. It’s unconstitutional, she said, after earlier arguing that the tax code should be three pages long. As if 401(k) plans were some state-of-nature gift found in Eden (and not, for those of you who aren’t familiar with this, a government retirement plan named for the section of the tax code it appears in).

Of course, if Republican primary voters are asking for affect and nonsense, that’s what they’re going to get. The losers, as usual, are real conservatives who don’t get an honest discussion of policy as well as everyone else, if a candidate who is elected doesn't need to know what he or she is talking about. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net