Political reporters and media critics chided Fox Business for its handling of the November 10 Republican presidential debate, pointing out that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) faced few substantive questions and was allowed to completely avoid controversial topics like immigration reform and his personal finances.
Fox Business “Played It Safe” During Fourth Republican Presidential Debate
Time: “Fox Business Played It Safe At The Republican Debate.” On November 10, the Fox Business Network hosted the fourth Republican presidential primary debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. According to Time, the moderators “seemed to be there to make friends” with the candidates instead of questioning their policy positions. Time also noted that Marco Rubio, the “perceived surging candidate,” was the only GOP hopeful posed with the “softball” question of why he would make a better president than Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton:
In the run-up to Tuesday night's Republican debate on the Fox Business Network, the Republican candidates had threatened, en masse, to enforce new conditions, which, if not agreed to by news organizations, would lead to their absence. The coalition of candidates fell apart quickly. But, at least in the short term, the Republicans had little to worry about.
[T]he debate provided little else for the candidates to complain about, and, counter to reality-TV wisdom, the candidates and moderators seemed to be there to make friends. The much-decried “lightning rounds,” which had previously allowed for both glimmers of personality and gotcha moments (that's how few candidates can name an American woman to put on the $10 bill?) were gone.
And the follow-ups tended towards just restating the question initially posed, rather than anything pushy. When Ted Cruz said he'd eliminate five government departments and then named the Department of Commerce twice, the moderators avoided making an awkward moment of it.
Some of that has to do with the debate subject: It's hard to create Grand Guignol out of the economy. But more seems to have to do with the network's approach. Fox Business, a nascent network, has far more to lose than Fox News or CNBC, and seemed to play the whole thing safe. Weird moments with technology, a hallmark of debates in the past two election cycles, were limited to a couple of questions from social-media and showing Jeb Bush a “word cloud” of global threats.
And the debate served to reaffirm conventional wisdom: Perceived surging candidate Marco Rubio was tossed a softball that seemed to presume he was already the nominee: Why should he be elected over Hillary Clinton, who's so much more experienced? (Neither Donald Trump nor Ben Carson, currently the two candidates leading national polls, was faced with the question.) [Time, 11/10/15]
Media Point Out That Fox Business' Debate Shielded Rubio From Tough Questions -- Particularly On Immigration
BuzzFeed News: “Marco Rubio Avoided The Tough Immigration Fight On A Fox Debate Again.” In a November 10 article, BuzzFeed News' Adrian Carrasquillo highlighted how Marco Rubio “never got tagged in at all” on the issue of immigration reform during the Fox Business debate, despite having played a central role in both the drafting and demise of comprehensive immigration reform legislation in 2013 (emphasis added):
When it came to immigration, the fourth Republican presidential debate was more like a WWE wrestling match.
But Marco Rubio? He never got tagged in at all.
Rubio -- who was part of the group of senators, known as the Gang of Eight, who helped craft bipartisan immigration legislation in 2013 before backing away from a comprehensive approach -- was chosen to speak next by the moderators, but instead was asked about the economy.
During the first debate on Fox News Channel where the candidates fought to be toughest on immigration, Rubio said a fence was needed on the border as well as e-verify and an entry-exit tracking system to prevent illegal immigration.
But instead of being asked about how his positions on immigration have shifted, Rubio was able to speak about one of the few slam dunks on the hot-button issue: frustration with the slowness of the legal immigration system.
“And let me tell you who never gets talked about in these debates,” Rubio said during the first debate. “The people that call my office, who have been waiting for 15 years to come to the United States. And they've paid their fees, and they hired a lawyer, and they can't get in. And they're wondering, maybe they should come illegally.” [BuzzFeed News, 11/10/15]
Washington Post: “Rubio 'Won' Tuesday's GOP Debate, But He Didn't Deserve To.” In a November 11 post on The Washington Post's PostPartisan blog, editorial writer Stephen Stromberg criticized Fox Business serving Rubio a “softball” on immigration and his fitness for the presidency, explaining how Rubio "'won' the debate, in part because the moderators didn't pin him down on politically tricky issues":
[W]hen the moderators turned to Rubio, a candidate with a complicated history on the immigration issue who would no doubt like to play both sides, they lobbed him this softball: “With factories run by robots and shopping done increasingly on smartphones, many traditional jobs are just going away. How do you reassure American workers that their jobs are not being steadily replaced by machines?” That's effectively asking Rubio to recite the “economy” portion of his stump speech. He took advantage of this and the other opportunities the moderators handed him to display his rhetorical gifts.
The moderators turned to Rubio and asked, “Why should the American people trust you to lead this country, even though [Hillary Clinton] has been so much closer to the office?” Another softball. Rubio swung: “This election is about the future, about what kind of country this nation is gonna be in the 21st century....” You get the picture.
So, though Bush and Kasich did much more to demonstrate that they are reasonable policy minds, Rubio “won” the debate. Cruz, meanwhile, did a fine job appealing to immigration ultras and anti-Fed cranks on the right -- not that anyone should be impressed. [The Washington Post, PostPartisan, 11/11/15]
Salon: “Marco Rubio Coasts, With Big Assist From The Moderators.” In a November 11 article, Salon's Simon Maloy (formerly of Media Matters) made the point that Sen. Rubio “coasted through the entire debate” by fielding questions that “were invitations for [Rubio] to launch into his talking points” and being given a free pass on immigration issues that tripped up other candidates (emphasis added):
Another Republican debate is in the books, and once again the consensus emerging from the pundits and reporters is that Florida senator Marco Rubio was the big winner of the evening. I don't really agree with that assessment, but I can see how one would come to that conclusion. Rubio had an easy night. He coasted through the entire debate with really only one bumpy patch. And he was abetted in this untroubled journey by the Fox Business moderators, who made it their business to make sure Rubio didn't face too much difficult questioning.
And then there were the questions Rubio wasn't asked. Donald Trump was interrogated about his position on immigration, but Rubio - whose immigration apostasies have caused him trouble with conservatives - was not. Ted Cruz was pressed repeatedly on how he'd pay for his package of tax cuts, but Rubio - whose tax plan costs far more than Cruz's - was not.
The only tough question Rubio fielded dealt with his proposal to expand the child tax credit, which Baker cast as “another expensive entitlement program to an already overburdened federal budget.” Rubio dodged the question entirely, saying that he loves families and is proud to have a pro-family tax plan. Hooray families! He likely would have gotten away with that had Rand Paul not jumped in and pointed out that Rubio's expansion of the tax credit exists alongside his massive expansion of military spending, which isn't very “conservative.” Paul had him dead to rights, but Rubio blustered his way out, calling Paul an “isolationist” and declaring “we can't even have an economy if we're not safe.” Rubio came nowhere close to answering Baker's question or Paul's challenge, and no one bothered to follow up and ask how Rubio would pay for new tax credits, pay for the military spending, pay for the tax cuts, and reduce the national debt he's so worried about. It's a massive contradiction at the heart of Rubio's candidacy, but, in keeping with the evening's theme, everyone just let it slide. [Salon, 11/11/15]
Maggie Haberman On CNN's New Day: “The Moderators Could Have Turned To Rubio” And Asked Him About Immigration. On the November 11 edition of CNN's New Day, New York Times presidential correspondent Maggie Haberman made the point that, by not including Rubio in a dispute about immigration reform, the moderators “really saved” him from scrutiny:
MAGGIE HABERMAN: I don't think Marco Rubio had a fantastic night, but he mostly sailed through. And he got helped, very important to note, there was a key moment involving immigration. There was a fight between Kasich and Trump, and Jeb chose his moment and got in on it, and basically was on the Kasich side versus Trump. The moderators could have turned to Rubio -- that is a real vulnerability for Rubio in the GOP primaries, immigration -- they didn't ask him about it. So, Rubio got really saved. [CNN, New Day, 11/11/15]
Rubio Also Got A Pass On Discussing His Financial Troubles
NPR Noted That Rubio's Finances Were Not Brought Up During The Debate. In a November 10 article, NPR made the observation that “Rubio's finances didn't come up” during the entire Fox Business Network debate. [NPR, 11/10/15]
CNN: “Rubio Did Not Have To Field [Questions] About His Finances.” In a November 11 article, CNN reporter Jeremy Diamond noted that “Rubio did not have to field the rolling questions about his finances, notably his use of a Republican Party credit card for personal expenses.” [CNN.com, 11/11/15]