When asked how Fox Business would avoid its debate going off the rails like CNBC’s, moderator Maria Bartiromo and her colleague Sandra Smith were content to answer, “We have a buzzer.” But if there was a loser on Tuesday night, it was the buzzer.
Fox Business' debate was just as chaotic as CNBC's with candidates ignoring time limits, talking over the moderators and each other, and hijacking the discussion. But the Fox Business hosts were careful not to antagonize the presidential hopefuls and avoided the aggravated assault from the candidates and their supporters CNBC got last time around.
And while the network refused to bend to the candidates’ editorial demands for the debate, a lot of the questions were softballs. (Candidates were presented with chances to praise the troops, welfare was characterized as “a culture of dependency.") Still, there were also moments where Fox Business fulfilled its promise to tease out some of the policy differences between the slew of rivals all promising a flat tax, smaller government and a strong military.
A Fight At The Kiddie Table
In fact, the nastiest things got between the network and the candidates was during the “undercard” debate -- featuring newly demoted but recognizable contenders New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee -- when moderator Gerald Seib asked each candidate to name a Democrat they admire. The audience began to groan before he even finished the question.
“This is why people were so frustrated with the last [CNBC] debate, with these silly questions,” said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, choosing to ignore it.
“Well since we’re not gonna answer the question,” Huckabee said, as he too ignored it and began an ode to the troops. “Let me finish please,” he shot back as Smith tried to put him back on track.
“I’ll continue the pattern [of ignoring the moderators],” Christie said with a smile when it was his turn.
The mainstage debate kept that kind of spiciness between the candidates themselves: despite the general disorder, the moderators emerged unscathed.
Again, part of that may have been due to a reluctance to correct or challenge the candidates’ talking points, like when it was stated that the federal “deficit” is growing (it’s at its lowest since 2007 ), or that China was a party to the Obama administration's Trans-Pacific Partnership deal (it is not). No one batted an eyelid when Ted Cruz dropped a rather conspicuous endorsement of returning to the gold standard (“sound money”) in a debate purportedly about the nitty-gritty details of the candidates’ economic platforms.
Cruz also tore into the “mainstream media” -- though he did not focus his ire directly on the network he was on the way he did during his tour de force at the CNBC event -- and had to be buzzed twice before he decided to end his soliloquy. After that, nearly every answer by a candidate went minutes over time, with several buzzes attempting to contain them in vain.
.@SenTedCruz makes joke about what would happen if foreigners were taking journalism jobs. Debate moderator is British. Just saying.
— Karen Tumulty (@ktumulty) November 11, 2015
But, as Fox News host Greg Gutfeld himself pointed out during the show, the buzzer hyped by Bartiromo and Smith as a defense against chaos was thwarted from the get-go.
the buzzer has less authority than a clam.
— GregGutfeld (@greggutfeld) November 11, 2015
After frontrunner Donald Trump took a typically unabashed and dismissive swipe at John Kasich, the Ohio governor demanded more time to respond, against the wishes of the moderators. The audience began to boo and there eventually were three or four voices over each other at once. After Kasich was done, it was Trump wrestling for more time, before both of them were interrupted by Jeb Bush. This kind of thing happened throughout the second half of the debate.
The moderators lost all control on what could have been a dry issue, taxes. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio kicked off a testy exchange over each other’s plans, again uninhibited by the buzzer. Soon Cruz joined Rubio to dump on Paul’s plan, and before long Carly Fiorina and Trump stepped in (buzzers still a-buzzing) to offer their own thoughts.
Kasich wanted a piece of that showdown, but finally moderator Gerard Baker recovered the reins.“I really must move on,” Baker told a pleading Kasich.
“I hate to spoil the party,” Kasich said.
“I must move on,” Baker repeated.
“It’s not fair!” Kasich shot back.
The buzzers weren’t the only thing to malfunction: At one point, music for a commercial break started up in the middle of an exchange between Baker and Paul. The music, combined with awkward camerawork, created an awkward vibe for several minutes as producers obviously and futilely hoped the back-and-forth would wrap up.
Bartiromo stared into the camera with some restrained alarm as it became clear the commercial break was not going down so smoothly. It provided a temporary soundtrack for Paul’s lecture on foreign affairs before finally dying down.
this was the moment when commercial music started playing and the debate kept happening for 2 minutes. Bartiromo pic.twitter.com/GUmEjRz7nt
— brendan james (@deep_beige) November 11, 2015
Another free-wheeling moment came when the debate departed from economics (the stated focus of the entire event) and began a showdown between “isolationists” and “interventionists” on foreign policy. A three-way tussle broke out between Rubio, Paul and, eventually, Fiorina. Before long, Trump weighed in but was cut off by the former HP CEO.
“Why does she keep interrupting everyone?” Trump said. The moderators were nowhere to be found.
Fox Business is trying so hard to not be CNBC that they won't even push the candidates on the time limits
— arit john (@aritbenie) November 11, 2015
But by the end of the night, all-out disaster was avoided, and moderator Neil Cavuto all but declared an open victory for the network while wishing the viewers good night.
“Business issues can be riveting. Because it wasn’t about us, it was about them,” Cavuto said, in perhaps the least subtle attack of the night.