Usually when politicians trash the media, I’m inclined to dismiss it as sour grapes over skeptical questions. I’ll say something sarcastic, like “We always welcome viewer comments” or “Thank you for sharing.” But when the GOP presidential candidates played to the partisan audience and went off on the reporter-moderators at the CNBC debate, I’m sad to admit that what are usually cheap shots landed right on the mark. The questioners appeared to be blatantly partisan inquisitors with their clumsily worded hostile questions.
John Harwood, for instance, in accusing Donald Trump of running a “comic book” campaign, gave “The Donald” the chance to look like he was a victim instead of an assailant, which is his normal mode. Ted Cruz set Republican hearts aflutter when he turned on the panel, exclaiming: “These questions illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match.”
Of course the debates have been a cage match. But it’s GOP dogma to insist that journalists are really just poorly disguised liberals or, as Marco Rubio put it: “The Democrats have the ultimate super PAC. It’s called the mainstream media.” You might want to ask Hillary Clinton about that one, since reporters correctly insist on antagonizing her by pursuing her email controversy and dissecting her every carefully worded response. But Rubio brought the house down with his obviously planned sound bite.
He also made mincemeat of Jeb Bush, who was trying to pin him down on his miserable record of stopping by Congress to vote every once in a while, even though it’s the biggest part of his day job being a United States senator. While much has been made of Sen. Rubio’s $174,000-a-year no-show record, which he justifies by saying “I’m frustrated” by the Senate, many unkind critics (which includes yours truly) have suggested that he just quit.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that when Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama were running for president, they had a similarly lousy attendance record. Frankly, we should have made an issue out of it then, but we were painfully soft on both of them — coddled them, actually, to our everlasting shame.
When Jeb tried to raise the issue against his old protege Marco, he ended up looking foolish. But he’s been doing a lot of that lately. The debate was supposed to be his last attempt to halt a steep downward slide, but it seems only to have accelerated it. There is a spreading feeling in his party that maybe he should be the one to bail out. He and his people insist that he’s in it for the long haul, but he got downright petulant about the whole thing in South Carolina when he declared: “I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.”
Trump has his own problems right now, with a surging Ben Carson. Carson has started passing him in the polls, raising suspicions that the Trumpster has run out of steam, that people are getting tired of his snarky one-liner ego-trip routine. Of course, we have speculated that for some time now, so it’s way too early to think about the day when he is ready to pack it in and move on to some other publicity stunt.
After a while, even the most insensitive politician has to wonder, like Jeb Bush, whether all the hassle is worth it. John Boehner, after nearly five years as House speaker, decided that the time had come to leave his Republican House Boehnheads behind and stop and smell the rose. (That’s a bad joke; he actually prefers merlot.)
As for those of us in the media, we’re supposed to be uniformly skeptical. Not appear hostile. Otherwise, the public will fire us.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.