It is the job of pundits and political analysts to at least pretend to take the Republican debate seriously. But it’s not healthy. Wednesday night’s spectacle: “Your Money, Your Vote” on CNBC, was a cultural low point.
For starters, the whole business-news-as-entertainment CNBC format has turned toxic since the financial meltdown of 2008. Remember Jon Stewart’s famous takedown of the CNBC stock-pumping enterprise and clownish host Jim Cramer in particular?
There was Cramer last night, soberly asking the Republican candidates about economic policy, as if he’d never told CNBC viewers to Buy, Buy Buy! just before the crash. And there was Carly Fiorina—best known for her disastrous stewardship of HP, before she departed with a record-breaking $40 million golden parachute—inveighing against policies that favor “the big and powerful,” and “the wealthy and the well-connected.”
Republican candidates, aware that the public attitude toward CEOs and Wall Street has turned sour, are trying to sound like Bernie Sanders, while promoting the same trickle-down snake oil they’ve always been selling. Ted Cruz one-upped Carly Fiorina’s three-page tax code with a “post card” taxpayers can mail to the IRS. Rand Paul said he wants a government “so small I can hardly see it.” Less regulation! Less complication! Get government out of the way! Buy, buy, buy!
CNBC has hardly changed its tune, either. While the network has been roundly criticized by the campaigns for the moderators’ tough questioning (no surprise there—the candidates’ biggest applause lines came from attacking “the media”) the network staunchly upheld the bedrock faith that an unregulated market is good for ordinary Americans. Before the debate, network commentators opined that, while there might be some Sanders fans on the Boulder, Colorado campus where the debate was taking place, there were likely a lot of Republicans among the college students, since they must be worried about getting jobs and paying off their college loans.
Worried about money? Vote for the wealthy and well-connected! It’s an increasingly tortured message, but it’s possible someone out there is still buying it.
The candidates themselves seemed to have lapsed into complete, transparent cynicism. Marco Rubio and Donald Trump told outright lies, Rubio about his own financial troubles, Trump about calling Rubio “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal Senator.” Both were easily checkable from recent news stories. Trump, confronted with the quote he denied—after moderator Becky Quick found it on his own website—seemed totally unfazed.
What do you expect? This isn’t about policy, or even business. It’s entertainment!
But while it’s one thing to stir up anger by talking about immigrants, Obama, and Hillary, it’s another to suggest that voters put you in charge of the U.S. economy. Americans are increasingly anxious, and increasingly aware they’ve been sold a bill of goods by the Jim Cramers of the world. The Republicans have no choice but to acknowledge that anger at “the wealthy and the powerful.” But at the same time, they have nothing to offer but tax cuts for the very rich and ominous rumblings about cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. No wonder the whole debate ended on such an apocalyptic note.
“America doesn’t win anymore!” Donald Trump bellowed in his closing remarks. Mike Huckabee did him one better: “I do not want to walk my five grandkids through the charred remains of a once-great country.”
So much for sunny optimism. America, we’re in trouble.