GOP Debate: Moderators take a step back; ‘It wasn’t about us’

Milwaukee GOP debate moderators
Moderators for the GOP debate, as seen on TV screen in the media area at Milwaukee Theater.

By Harry Huggins and Satvika Khera

MILWAUKEE — Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee proved a friendlier forum for both the candidates and moderators than CNBC’s debate two weeks ago.

The moderators, Fox Business Network hosts Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto and Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker, mainly stayed out of the way of candidates vying for screen time.

“Business issues can be riveting, because it wasn’t about us,” Cavuto said as he closed the debate. “It was about them.”

The moderators demanded substantive answers for minimum wage and tax policy questions, but stepped back and allowed bickering between candidates when it came to issues like foreign policy.

Sharp bells chimed every time a candidate exceeded his or her allotment of 90 seconds to answer or 60 seconds to respond. The bells rang freely whenever Bartiromo, Cavuto and Baker allowed candidates to engage freely with each other.

At one point, Donald Trump stepped in to moderate the discussion himself. When John Kasich tried to respond over Jeb Bush, Trump interrupted.

“You should let Jeb speak,” Trump said.

“Thank you so much, Mr. Trump, for letting me speak,” Bush responded. “You’re an awful nice man.”

The night lacked the media bashing that dominated CNBC’s debate. Almost every candidate complimented the moderators’ questions. One exception was Ted Cruz, who argued the media would cover immigration differently if an increase of journalism degrees threatened to drive down media salaries. Even Cruz praised the moderators after the debate.

The moderators’ Laissez-faire style left candidates to fact check each other. While they jostled to get out their talking points, candidates tried to hold each other accountable, to the extent that any one party can hold itself accountable.

After Trump referred to China as a part of the Trans Pacific Partnership, Rand Paul jumped in to correct him. Paul pointed out that China is not, in fact, a part of the partnership, and he seized the floor for himself.

Cavuto pressed the candidates harder than his cohosts. He questioned Cruz’s statement that he would not bail out big banks in a financial crisis because there would not be another crisis.

“You can’t seriously guarantee that there won’t be another financial crisis, can you?” Cavuto asked.

Even Ben Carson, whose personal history came under attack from the media this week, demurred to the moderators. Cavuto asked if Carson worried that his past would hurt his campaign.

“I’m thankful for you not asking where I sit in the 10th grade” Carson joked.

Protestors picketed outside the Milwaukee Theater before the debate. Ebony Ellis held a sign that read, “Don’t Believe the Liberal Media.” She said she hoped the moderators would be fair and ask questions that would help her decide on a candidate, not questions that “don’t matter to me making an informed decision.”

PHOTO AT TOP: Moderators for the GOP debate, as seen on TV screen in the media area at Milwaukee Theater. (Raquel Zaldivar/MEDILL)