The most recent Republican primary debate, which aired two weeks ago on CNBC, was a well-choreographed pageant of pandering, evasion, and deceit. Confronted with moderators who questioned the feasibility, consistency, and wisdom of their issue positions, the candidates responded not with demonstrations of their substantive knowledge, but with fabrications and unfounded accusations of media bias.
Republicans registered their dissatisfaction with enough petulance that the host of Tuesday’s debate, Fox Business Network, is trying to set itself apart. To avoid a repeat of the CNBC mess, it is making its moderators “invisible” and thus unable to interject when the candidates say untrue things.
It stands to reason that the GOP and Fox Business will serve each other’s purposes perfectly. By renouncing confrontation and skepticism, Fox Business will give Republican candidates the obstacle-free forum they demand; and in return, for distinguishing itself from CNBC, Republicans will refrain from attacking the network's moderators as limelight-seekers or agents of a media conspiracy. A symbiosis of cynicism and reciprocal gratification.
But that isn’t to say the debate will redound to the benefit of either Republicans or their inquisitors. Republicans and Fox Business may figure out how to get along with one another, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the candidates or the network will enjoy lasting boosts to either their reputations or their ultimate aims. In the end, the winners of such a delicate presentation might well be the very people Republicans have sought to demonize, at the expense of misled and frustrated Republican voters.
The conservative movement in the Obama era has been marked by leaders who hyperbolize and over-promise, simultaneously stoking latent paranoia and failing to adequately confront these imagined dangers. Recent convulsions on the right—like former Speaker John Boehner’s resignation from the House, and former Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat last year at the hands of David Brat, a right-wing primary challenger—are widely characterized as self-defeating acts of conservative excess. But they can just as easily be characterized as the justified backlash of a disgruntled conservative rank and file. “[Cantor] wrote, ran on, and promised the Pledge to America,” Brat complained recently to reporters. “He is now name-calling, and making fun of—as 'unrealistic’—those who are running on the pledges that he made on paper. So, Eric Cantor was the leader who put forward the Pledge to America, and we're 'unrealistic' for following his logic. Run that by a college freshman in philosophy. That's called a contradiction. Socrates would give him an F."
Republican primary debates are venues for this kind of over-promising and underperforming on a grander, televised scale. The four leading Republican presidential candidates have promised to reform the tax code in equally, but uniquely unserious ways. Donald Trump would reduce revenues by $10 trillion over a decade, but he wishes away this immense calamity by claiming falsely and without any shame that his plan would generate 6 percent economic growth in perpetuity. Ben Carson proposes a tax plan based on the tithe. Ted Cruz’s combination of a flat income tax with a value-added tax would be less fiscally disastrous but much more regressive. Marco Rubio promises tax cuts so enormous that he’d have to eliminate the entire non-defense budget, save for Medicare and Social Security, to square away the rest of his promises. These ideas are the embers of the next right-on-right conflagration, which will erupt when the Repbulican nominee swings back to the center during the general election, or when the next Republican president fails to deliver what he promised.
CNBC’s fiasco proved that journalists who don’t enjoy the auspices of the conservative movement can’t successfully contest this kind of outlandishness in real time. Republicans will brush off outsider scrutiny as a symptom of media bias. Fox Business doesn’t have that problem. But if for the sake of coalition management its moderators decide they’re better off serving as enablers, it won't be in the interest of the party or the candidates or GOP voters. They’ll be doing a favor to those who stand to gain from the right’s increasingly attenuated grip on reality.