The Harwood Follies

On Wednesday, the Republican Presidential candidates had their third debate in Boulder, CO. It was managed and presented by CNBC and the advertised topic was economic issues. I watched it with ever-increasing amazement. Could this be a SNL parody? But then how on Earth did they get all the candidates to cooperate? All of the CNBC interviewers were culprits in this farce, but I think that John Harwood deserves the most credit, if that is the right term.

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The following questions are taken verbatim from an official transcript of the proceedings. See if you react the way I did. I have appended my translation of each question. Actually the very first question perfectly sets the tone.

First question of the debate, to Donald Trump (per his economic plan): Let’s be honest. Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?

Why are you wasting our time with your absurd economic ideas?

To Donald Trump: 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 have flying away from that podium by flapping your arms.

Same as above, but I don’t feel like bothering to present my opinion as a question.

To Carly Fiorina (per her tax plan): You want to bring 70,000 pages to three? Is that using really small type?

Your plan is obviously a joke, so I will make one of my own. Aren’t I clever?

To Marco Rubio: You’re skipping more votes than any senator to run for president. Why not slow down, get a few more things done first or at least finish what you start? Do you hate your job?

Why don’t you take your lazy ass back to Florida and do some real work?

To Jeb Bush: The Republican Party has given in to know-nothingism. Is that why you’re having a difficult time in this race?

Aren’t your weak poll results the obvious consequence of too many Republican nitwits?

To Carly Fiorina: Your [corporate] board fired you. I just wondered why you think we should hire you now?

Since corporate boards are infallible, doesn’t your being fired disqualify you?

To Ted Cruz (per economic compromise plan): Does your opposition to it show that you’re not the kind of problem-solver American voters want?

Since you oppose what I approve, aren’t you just an idiot who can’t be trusted?

To Rand Paul (per same plan): Do you oppose that budget deal because it doesn’t cut [entitlement programs] enough?

Doesn’t your opposition just show how much you despise all social programs?

To Mike Huckabee (per cutting entitlements): When it is acceptable to break a social compact?

Why are all Republicans such Scrooges?

To Donald Trump: Bankruptcy is a broken promise. Why should the voters believe the promises that you’re telling them right now?

Aren’t businessmen like you inherently untrustworthy?

To Ben Carson (per drug prices): Have these companies gone too far? Should the government be involved in controlling some of these price increases?

Since the best and only cure for problems is government action, which specific action do you recommend?

To Chris Christie (per GM engine switch cover-up): As a former prosecutor, do you believe the people responsible for the switch and the cover-up belong behind bars?

Don’t we all agree that we should toss more white-collar criminals in the clink?

To Carly Fiorina (per internet sales tax): Now that the Internet shopping playing field has matured, what would be a fair plan to even that playing field?

(In case you didn’t get it last time) Since the best and only cure for problems is government action, which specific action do you recommend?

To Marco Rubio (per his sloppy personal finances): 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?

What makes you think you have a place on the podium with all these financial geniuses?

To Ted Cruz (per women’s pay vs. men’s pay): What you would do as President to try to help in this cause?

We all know that this can be best fixed by an executive order, so what’s yours?

To Ben Carson: Why would you serve on a company [Costco] whose policies seem to run counter to your views on homosexuality?

Hey, you old bigot, what about that?

To Marco Rubio (per H1b visas): 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?

Why do you support taking bread from little children?

To Ted Cruz: Do you want to get Congress involved in monetary policy, or is it time to slap the Fed back and downsize them completely?

Don’t you agree that the Fed is too big for its britches?

To Jeb Bush (per his tax plan): Why would you tax labor at a higher rate than income from investments?

Why are you such a rotten plutocrat?

To John Kasich (per legalizing marijuana): Given the budget pressures in Ohio, and other states, is this a revenue stream you’d like to have?

I have a great idea. Shouldn’t you get on board with legalizing marijuana like the smart states do?

To Donald Trump (per citizens carrying guns): Would you feel more comfortable if your employees brought guns to work? Are you carrying one now?

Just how crazy a gun nut are you, anyway?

To Mike Huckabee: When you look at him [Donald Trump], do you see someone with the moral authority to unite the country?

Don’t you agree that Trump is a disgraceful nonentity?

To Carly Fiorina: Should the Federal Government play a larger role in helping to set up retirement plans for […] workers?

Hey, here’s another one of my great ideas, do you support it?

To John Kasich (per student debt): What will you do to make sure that students, their families, taxpayers, won’t feel the economic impact of this burden for generations?

(At the risk of repetitiveness) Since the best and only cure for problems is government action, which specific action do you recommend?

To Chris Christie (per climate change): What do we do to deal with it?

You’re not one of those idiots who thinks that there is nothing we can or should do about this, are you?

To Rand Paul: Considering the mounting cost of Medicare, was he [Ronald Reagan] right to oppose it?

Heh, heh … How would you like to go on record against either Reagan or Medicare?

To be fair, not every question was so obviously leading or biased, but probably only because no one could maintain this level of journalistic incompetence for two straight hours. It is fine to be provocative but not if the provocations present a political point of view. I give Harwood credit for doing what he did deliberately. But whether that is true or he is just oblivious is irrelevant. In either case any self-respecting news organization would fire him on the spot. Or is self-respecting news organization now an oxymoron?

I suppose some Democrats will see nothing untoward about the tone or phraseology of these questions. But they should consider how they would react if the situation were reversed. Let me see if I can do a Harwood imitation in a Democratic debate wearing, let us say, a Sean Hannity mask.

To Hillary Clinton: Since you played fast and loose with government secrets on your insecure e-mail server, why should we trust you with our nation’s secrets as President?

To Bernie Sanders: You opposed the Brady gun bill. As President, what other gun controls would you seek to undo?

To Martin O’Malley: You were Mayor of Baltimore and Governor of Maryland, where violent crime is rampant. Why should we trust you to keep our citizens safe?

The point is that these are loaded questions. They imply facts neither proven nor relevant. Asking them in a serious discussion to provide us with information about candidates for President is disgraceful. And what is almost worse, in the context of the recent Republican debate, is that only conservative news outlets are expressing outrage. I was absolutely dumbfounded when Gwen Ifill had Harwood on as a guest in her excellent Washington Week program to discuss and dissect the debate. She also discussed Syria and I suppose she couldn’t manage to get an ISIS spokesman to help give a sensibly balanced viewpoint. For God’s sake, where is today’s Edward R. Murrow now that we sorely need him?

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The Democratic Debate

cf77769e80025287000fb26be252e405Tuesday’s debate by the five Democratic candidates for President kept reminding me of something but I just couldn’t dredge up the memory. Then it all came back. This sounded a lot like bull sessions in my college dorm. With all our adolescent bravado, we would vehemently argue for this or that progressive policy that would cure societal ills, real and imagined. All that mattered was building a better society, or at least one that was more fair in how benefits and burdens are distributed. Cost was rarely discussed, but the general consensus was that whatever was needed could be easily extracted from those damned plutocrats. It was a bit exhilarating.

There was even a direct connection between those long-ago sessions and this week’s debate. Although I didn’t know him at the time, Bernie Sanders attended the University of Chicago at the same time as I did. Since then I have grown up and have been exposed to the real world, where few issues are black and white and where difficult choices must be made. Not so much Bernie, and his confidence stems from decades of speaking the same simple truths as he sees them.

xxxTo digress for a moment, don’t you think there is something wondrous about the choice of Las Vegas, of all places, as the venue? I occasionally enjoy Sin City, where pretty much anything goes. Do you think that its motto, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas!”, may have relaxed the candidates a bit and loosened their tongues? That must have been true for Lincoln Chafee when Anderson Cooper challenged him to justify his vote to deregulate the big banks in 1999. The bemused Cooper obviously felt that he must have misheard when Chafee dismissed this by responding, “Glass-Steagall was my very first vote. I’d just arrived and my dad had died in office.

Although Hillary made a poised and clear case for her candidacy, and probably sank any prospects for Joe Biden to interfere, Bernie dominated the stage. He set the agenda and the tone. At best the others, including Hillary, just riffed on Bernie’s themes. And in a constantly rising bass, his melody was socialism at its best, or worst depending on your political perspective. He even made quite clear what model he was seeking, the Scandinavian brand, and in particular Denmark. This gave Hillary a small opening to assert a bit of common sense, pointing out that the U.S. and Denmark make a distinctly odd couple.

The other three participants made little impact and could probably have been replaced by random picks from the audience for all that they mattered. They seem nice enough people but surely even they can’t see themselves as President of the United States.

Overall, this debate puts the Republican events thus far to shame. Real policies were discussed, there was no personal invective, and locker-room cheer-leading was kept to a minimum. Perhaps the Republicans will do better when their crowd is pruned. But Trump continues to dominate their stage, much as Bernie did this week. His theme is equally invigorating but far less specific. As Jimmy Fallon perceptively noted, it is “All I Do is Win” by DJ Khaled. And that oddly seems to be enough for his many supporters.