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CNBC's Republican Primary Debate Was Extremely Substantive

Robyn Peck/AFP/Getty Images

After Wednesday night’s Republican primary debate on CNBC, a conventional wisdom quickly congealed that it had been a failure due to a combination of unsubstantive questions, liberal bias, and chaotic format. Outrage on the right even led RNC Chairman Reince Preibus on Friday to send a letter to NBC News declaring that the RNC was "suspending" its partnerships with NBC for the GOP primary debate scheduled for Feb. 26, 2016, in Houston.

Nobody did more to help set that wisdom than Ted Cruz, who got an unusually positive response from the audience when he fired back at the debate moderators: “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match. And, you look at the questions—‘Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain?’ ‘Ben Carson, can you do math?’ ‘John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?’ ‘Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?’ ‘Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?’ How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?"

There’s no denying that the moderators lost control of the debate at times. But it is impossible to claim that CNBC—the network that employs Rick Santelli, who helped galvanize the Tea Party—is part of the “liberal media.” As for the allegation that the questions were frivolous … judge for yourself. I compiled all 46 questions from Wednesday night from Time's transcript. If you consolidate follow-ups, or double-count single questions asked of multiple candidates, you might come up with a different number, but this is pretty close to every question. Among them, I counted [deep breath] …

… Two questions about the feasibility of Donald Trump’s policy agenda, six questions about taxes, two questions about Marco Rubio’s Senate attendance record, one question about the causes of Bush’s struggles, two questions about Carly Fiorina’s business record, three questions about the recent budget deal, two questions about Social Security, one question about Trump’s business record, one question about pharmaceutical prices, one question about corporate prosecutions, one question about the internet sales tax, one question about Marco Rubio’s financial difficulties, one question (and follow-up) about the Export-Import Bank, one equal-pay question, one question about equal rights, one question about Ben Carson’s business associates, two questions about H1-B visas, one question about the Federal Reserve, one question about federal subsidies, one question about inequality, one question about pot legalization, two questions about gun control, one question about Trump’s moral values, one question about retirement, one question about student loans, one question about gambling, one question about climate change, three questions about Medicare.

These questions were divided among three main hosts—Carl Quintanilla, John Harwood, and Becky Quick—and three subs: Jim Cramer, the aforementioned Santelli, and Sharon Epperson.

You can read them below. Not every question is perfect, and some of the substantive ones are framed combatively or imperfectly. But the ratio of substance to political drama is very high. It belies the Republican Party’s post-debate spin that the moderators fell down on the job by sidelining important issues. It also bolsters the argument that the candidates were unhappy with the debate for other reasons: namely, their own unruliness and the extreme nature of their own policy agendas.

  1. What is your biggest weakness and what are you doing to correct it? —Quintanilla
  2. 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? —Harwood
  3. You [Trump] say that it would not increase the deficit because you cut taxes $10 trillion in the economy would take off like a rocket ship. I talked to economic advisers who have served presidents of both parties. They said that you have a chance of cutting taxes that much without increasing the deficit as you would of flying away from that podium by flapping your arms. —Harwood
  4. 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 took a 10 percent tax, with the numbers right now in total personal income, you’re gonna come in with bring in $1.5 trillion. That is less than half of what we bring in right now. And by the way, it’s gonna leave us in a $2 trillion hole. So what analysis got you to the point where you think this will work? —Quick
  5. You [Kasich] had some very strong words to say yesterday about what’s happening in your party and what you’re hearing from the two gentlemen [Trump, Carson] we’ve just heard from. Would you repeat it? —Harwood
  6. You [Kasich] said yesterday that you were hearing proposals that were just crazy from your colleagues. Who were you talking about? —Harwood
  7. You [Fiorina] want to bring 70,000 pages [of the tax code] to three? Is that using really small type? —Quintanilla [Ed. note: The tax code is not 70,000 pages.]
  8. 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 least finish what you start? —Quintanilla
  9. So when the Sun-Sentinel says Rubio should resign, not rip us off, when they say Floridians sent you to Washington to do a job, when they say you act like you hate your job, do you? —Quintanilla
  10. Ben Bernanke, who was appointed Fed chairman by your brother [Bush], 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? —Harwood
  11. Ms. Fiorina, I—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. —Quick
  12. Mrs. Fiorina, it’s interesting that you bring up Mr. Perkins, because he said a lot of very questionable things. Last year, in an interview, he said that he thinks wealthy people should get more votes than poor people. I think his quote was that, “if you pay zero dollars in taxes, you should get zero votes. If you pay a million dollars, you should get a million votes.” Is this the type of person you want defending you? —Quick
  13. Senator Cruz. Congressional Republicans, Democrats, and the White House are about to strike a compromise that would raise the debt limit, prevent a government shutdown, and calm financial markets that fear of—another Washington-created crisis is on the way. Does your opposition to it show that you’re not the kind of problem-solver American voters want? —Quintanilla [Ed. note: The budget deal won’t necessarily prevent another government shutdown.]
  14. Senator Paul, the budget deal crafted by Speaker Boehner and passed by the House today makes cuts in entitlement programs, Medicare, and Social Security disability, which are the very programs conservatives say need cutting to shrink government and solve our country’s long-term budget deficit. Do you oppose that budget deal because it doesn’t cut those programs enough? —Harwood
  15. If what you [Paul] just said is true, why did Speaker Boehner craft this deal and why did Paul Ryan, who has a strong reputation for fiscal discipline, vote for it? —Harwood
  16. I have a question for you [Christie]. In your tell-it-like-it-is campaign, you’ve said a lot of tough things. You’ve said that we need to raise the retirement age for Social Security. You think that we need to cut benefits for people who make over $80,000 and eliminate them entirely for seniors who are making over $200,000. Governor Huckabee, who is here on the stage, has said that you and others who think this way are trying to rob seniors of the benefits that they’ve earned. It raises the question: When it is acceptable to break a social compact? —Quick
  17. Mr. Trump, let’s talk a little bit about bankruptcies. Your Atlantic City casinos filed for bankruptcy four times. In fact, Fitch, the ratings agency, even said that they were serial filers for all of this. You said that you did great with Atlantic City, and you did. But some of the individuals—the bondholders, some of the contractors who worked for you, didn’t fare so well. Bankruptcy is a broken promise. Why should the voters believe the promises that you’re telling them right now? —Quick
  18. Dr. Carson, in recent weeks, a number of pharmaceutical companies has been accused of profiteering, for dramatically raising the prices of life-saving drugs. You have spent a lifetime in medicine. Have these companies gone too far? Should the government be involved in controlling some of these price increases? —Cramer
  19. Governor Christie, there has been a lot of political rhetoric that some bank executives should have gone to jail for the 2008 financial crisis. But General Motors paid more than $1 billion in fines and settlements for its ignition switch defect. One hundred and twenty-four people died as a result of these faulty switches. No one went to jail. As a former prosecutor, do you believe the people responsible for the switch and the cover-up belong behind bars? —Cramer
  20. Governor Bush, in a debate like this four years ago, every Republican running for president pledged to oppose a budget deal containing any tax increase even if it had spending cuts ten times as large. A few months later, you told Congress, put me in, coach, you said you would take that deal. Still feel that way? —Harwood
  21. Mrs. Fiorina, in 2010, while running for Senate … you called an internet sales tax a bad idea. Traditional brick and mortar stores obviously disagree. Now that the internet shopping playing field has matured, what would be a fair plan to even that playing field? —Quintanilla
  22. Senator Rubio, you yourself have said that you’ve had issues. You have a lack of bookkeeping skills. You accidentally inter-mingled campaign money with your personal money. You faced foreclosure on a second home that you bought. And just last year, you liquidated a $68,000 retirement fund. That’s something that cost you thousands of dollars in taxes and penalties. In terms of all of that, it raises the question whether you have the maturity and wisdom to lead this $17 trillion economy. What do you say? —Quick
  23. You’ve [Rubio] had a windfall that a lot of Americans haven’t. You made over a million dollars on a book deal, and some of these problems came after that. —Quick
  24. Governor John Kasich, you’ve called for abolishing the Export-Import Bank, which provides subsidies to help American companies compete with overseas competitors. You call that corporate welfare. One of the largest newspapers in your state wrote an editorial, said they found that strange, writing, that if that’s corporate welfare, what does Kasich call the millions of dollars in financial incentives doled out to attract or retain jobs by his development effort—jobs Ohio. If subsidies are good enough for Ohio companies, why aren’t they good enough for companies trying to compete overseas? —Harwood
  25. Senator Cruz, working women in this country still earn just 77 percent of what men earn. And I know that you’ve said you’ve been very sympathetic to our cause. But you’ve also you said that the Democrats’ moves to try and change this are the political show votes. I just wonder what you would do as President to try and help in this cause? —Quick
  26. Dr. Carson, we know you as a physician, but we wanted to ask you about your involvement on some corporate boards, including Costco’s. Last year, a marketing study called the warehouse retailer the number one gay-friendly brand in America, partly because of its domestic partner benefits. Why would you serve on a company whose policies seem to run counter to your views on homosexuality? —Quintanilla
  27. This is a company called Mannatech, a maker of nutritional supplements, with which you [Carson] had a 10-year relationship. They offered claims that they could cure autism, cancer, they paid $7 million to settle a deceptive marketing lawsuit in Texas, and yet you’re involvement continued. Why? —Quintanilla
  28. Senator Rubio, Wired magazine recently carried the heading, “Marco Rubio wants to be the tech industry’s savior.” It noted your support for dramatically increasing immigration visas called H1B, which are designed for workers with the special skills that Silicon Valley wants. But your Senate colleague, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, says in reality, the tech industry uses this program to undercut hiring and wages for highly qualified Americans. Why is he wrong? —Harwood
  29. [Aborted question about Trump’s criticisms of Rubio and Zuckerberg.]
  30. Senator Cruz, let’s focus on our central bank, the Federal Reserve. You’ve been a fierce critic of the Fed, arguing for more transparency. Where do you want to take that? Do you want to get Congress involved in monetary policy, or is it time to slap the Fed back and downsize them completely? What are your thoughts? What do you believe? —Santelli
  31. Dr. Carson, you told The Des Moines Register that you don’t like government subsidies, it interferes with the free market. But you’ve also said that you’re in favor of taking oil subsidies and putting them towards ethanol processing. Isn’t that just swapping one subsidy for another, doctor? —Santelli
  32. Governor Huckabee, you have railed against income inequality. You’ve said that some Wall Street executives should have gone to jail over the roles that they played during the financial crisis. Apart from your tax plan, are there specific steps you would require from corporate America to try and reduce the income inequality. —Quick
  33. Governor Bush, the tax reform bill that Ronald Reagan signed in 1986 cut the top personal income tax rate to 28 percent—just like your plan does. But President Reagan taxed capital gains at the same rate, while you would tax them at just 20 percent. Given the problems we’ve been discussing, growing gap between rich and poor, why would you tax labor at a higher rate than income from investments? —Harwood
  34. Senator Rubio, 30 seconds to you. The Tax Foundation, which was alluded to earlier, scored your tax plan and concluded that you give nearly twice as much of a gain in after-tax income to the top 1 percent as to people in the middle of the income scale. Since you’re the champion of Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck, don’t you have that backward? —Harwood
  35. Governor Kasich, let’s talk about marijuana. We’re broadcasting from Colorado which has seen $150 million in new revenue for the state since legalizing last year. Governor Hickenlooper is not a big fan of legalization, but he’s said the people who used to be smoking it are still smoking it, they’re just now paying taxes. Given the budget pressures in Ohio, and other states, is this a revenue stream you’d like to have? —Quintanilla
  36. Mr. Trump, I want to go back to an issue that we were talking about before, the H-1B visas. I found where I read that before. It was from the website and it says—it says that again, Mark Zuckerburg’s personal senator, Marco Rubio has a bill to triple H-1Bs that would decimate women and minorities. Are you in favor of H-1Bs or are you opposed to them? —Quick
  37. Would you [Trump] feel more comfortable if your employees brought guns to work? —Quintanilla
  38. We called a few Trump resorts, a few Trump properties that — that do not allow guns with or without a permit. Would you change those policies? —Quintanilla
  39. Governor Huckabee, you’ve written about the huge divide in values between middle America and the big coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles. As a preacher as well as a politician, you know that presidents need the moral authority to bring the entire country together. The leading Republican candidate, when you look at the average of national polls right now, is Donald Trump. When you look at him, do you see someone with the moral authority to unite the country? —Harwood
  40. Mrs. Fiorina, you were the CEO of a large corporation that offers a 401(k) to its employees. But more than half of American have no access to an employer sponsored retirement plan. That includes the workers at small businesses, and the growing ranks of Uber drivers and other part-timers in the freelance economy. Should the Federal Government play a larger role in helping to set up retirement plans for these workers? —Epperson
  41. This country has over $100 billion in student loan defaults. That’s billion with a "b." What will you [Kasich] do to make sure that students, their families, taxpayers, won’t feel the economic impact of this burden for generations? —Epperson
  42. Governor Bush, daily fantasy sports has become a phenomenon in this country, will award billions of dollars in prize money this year. But to play you have to assess your odds, put money at risk, wait for an outcome that’s out of your control. Isn’t that the definition of gambling, and should the federal government treat it as such? —Quintanilla
  43. Governor Christie, you’ve said something that many in your party do not believe, which is that climate change is undeniable, that human activity contributes to it, and you said, quote: “The question is, what do we do to deal with it?” So what do we do? —Harwood
  44. Senator Paul, among the leading conservative opponents to the creation of Medicare back in the 1960s was Ronald Reagan. He warned that it would lead to socialism. Considering the mounting cost of Medicare, was he right to oppose it? —Quick
  45. Governor Bush, Mr. Trump says that he is capable of growing the economy so much that Social Security and Medicare don’t have to be touched. Do you want to explain how that is going to happen, Mr. Trump? —Harwood
  46. You’ve [Carson] said that you would like to replace Medicare with a system of individual family savings accounts, so that families could cover their own expenses. Obviously, that would be a very controversial idea. Explain how that would work, exactly. —Harwood