Debate Questions Naturally Lean Left Because Mainstream Voters and Reality Do

Timothy Carney at the Washington Examiner wrote a piece getting a decent amount of attention today proclaiming that liberal media bias exists and that it affected the CNBC debate. Unlike most of bloviating on the topic from the right, Carney actually adduces evidence for his point of view. After the usual blather about how most journalists lean Democratic (most professionals in almost every field requiring professional education do, which should tell conservatives something), he does something useful by illustrating what a debate from a conservative perspective might look like:

They could have asked Kasich: “Why did you increase Medicaid under Obamacare in Ohio?” They could have asked Trump, “How can eminent domain for corporate gain be squared with free-enterprise views?” They could have asked Rubio about sugar subsidies, or Cruz if his “defund Obamacare” fight did any good, or Jeb Bush about his support for more immigration. They could have asked Christie about his liberal court appointments.

They instead asked for price controls and regulations, they asked about the social compact in entitlement spendings, they asked why not to support budget-busting deals. Most questions were either non-ideological, and many were from a liberal perspective. When they asked about marijuana legalization it wasn’t from an anti-drug perspective or a libertarian perspective, but a “more government revenue” perspective.

OK fine, but here’s the problem with that: most voters don’t care about those things, or they’re couched in a way that would only reinforce the hostility of mainstream voters. Any moderator that asked a GOP candidate like Kasich why they increased Medicaid as though that were a bad thing, would be inviting all the candidates to lay into him and provide endless soundbites for Democrats in a general election. Because most voters like Medicaid expansion when it’s explained to them. Most voters don’t give a damn about “eminent domain for corporate gain”–not even conservative ones. Corn and sugar subsidies, while important public policy problems that expose crony capitalism and contradictions in conservative ideology, don’t even begin to rate as top issues on the minds of voters or remotely interesting. Nor would inviting other candidates to attack subsidies for farmers be good politics, either to please donors or the public at large. Ted Cruz was asked about his government shutdown tactics, and the question was such a landmine for him that he dodged the question entirely. Meanwhile, immigration has been a big debate question for GOP candidates and Jeb Bush in particular: Bush’s support for immigration reform is the biggest reason for his poor performance in the polls, and the biggest reason for Donald Trump’s ascendance. Asking about immigration reform from a hostile, conservative point of view would only serve to give Trump and Cruz more ammunition, and further alienate Hispanic voters in the general election.

By contrast, taxes and budgets really matter. Education matters. Healthcare matters. Jobs matter. The fact that the public has decidedly liberal positions on those issues, and that the lived reality of supply-side economic failures and government healthcare successes disadvantages conservative ideology, isn’t the fault of debate moderators. It’s the fault of conservative ideology, which should in theory be forced to adjust just as certain aspects of liberalism had to during the 1970s.

These are also the issues on which the Republican nominee will be tested come the general election. Democratic candidates will be forced to answer for issues on which voters have skepticism of liberal positions, from guns to foreign policy to the welfare state–and challenging questions on those issues are consistently asked during Democratic debates, nor are they prejudicial. Republicans are likewise expected to answer for their unpopular positions, because they’ll be forced to defend them in the general election.

The fact that Republicans have more unpopular positions and a weaker track record of success isn’t the fault of debate moderators. It’s the fault of Republican candidates and their ideology.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.