In their presidential debate in Boulder, Colorado, Republicans showed who they really want to run against.
What they call the mainstream media.
And the idea of government itself.
It was an odd, odd night.
The 11 top-tier GOP candidates spent more time attacking CNBC’s moderators and “the government” than they did each other or any potential Democratic candidate. They didn’t just toss red meat to the party’s anti-government tea party base. They tossed the entire cow in their direction.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, fired the first salvo.
Asked a tough question about the budget deal that just passed the U.S. House of Representatives and might allow the nation to avoid another government shutdown, Cruz opted not to answer the question. Instead he lashed out at the moderators for asking the question.
“The questions asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the mainstream media,” Cruz said.
It was a strange complaint for a couple of reasons.
The first was that that specific question was one tailor-made for Cruz, who established his national reputation – and thus the basis for his presidential candidacy – by fighting against just the sort of deal that emerged from the House. If he couldn’t answer that question, there weren’t likely to be many that he could.
The second reason his grievance seemed spurious is that the candidates made it clear from the outset that they didn’t feel bound to answer any question at any time.
The main debate’s first question asked each candidate to identify his or her greatest weakness. Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio, set the pattern for the other candidates by saying, “That’s a great question” but then refusing to answer.
Instead, he launched a not-so-oblique attack on frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson, saying that their policy proposals were a “fantasy.” Others followed suit.
After Cruz’s broadside at the moderators, it was open season.
Trump took issue with a question from Becky Quick about his criticism of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Trump’s rival candidate U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, by saying that she was wrong and that she had lousy fact-checkers. When it turned out that the uncomplimentary quote came from Trump’s own website, the Donald just shrugged as if to say: Facts, who cares about them, really?
Rubio then got into the act by justifying his anemic attendance in the U.S. Senate with the classic adolescent defense for misbehavior – a lot of other people have done it. He also lashed out at the media, labeling journalists a super-PAC for Hillary Clinton.
All in all, it was a curious performance.
Railing against the media, of course, has been a staple of GOP politics for more than 50 years, ever since the Republican convention that nominated U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Arizona, in 1964. It plays well to the party’s activist base, which always has been energized by a highly developed sense of persecution.
This time around, though, the outrage seemed especially synthetic. It’s hard to take seriously the complaints of men and women who have made millions of dollars by transforming political power into celebrity and celebrity into political power whining about the triviality of the entertainment culture and arguing that they are victims of it.
It likely did play well with the most determined Republican voters – and Rubio, Cruz and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina (the winner in the under-card or “kids table” debate earlier in the evening) probably emerged from the night in stronger positions.
But the impression the night likely left with voters who haven’t already made up their minds to vote Republican in next year’s presidential election is that no idea from one of these candidates – however strange, ill-informed or poorly thought out – is allowed to be questioned.
That approach will work with voters who aren’t likely to demand anything other than fealty from Republican candidates.
At some point, though, at least one of these Republican candidates will have to persuade people who don’t already agree with them.
If this debate was any indication, they’re not ready to meet that challenge.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.