Thursday night’s GOP primary debate was business as usual. “The Donald” was loud and off the cuff, squabbling with Ted Cruz over poll numbers in Iowa. We were reminded of the real challenges facing the United States, like The New York Times and Hillary Clinton. As a proud son of New Jersey, every fiber in my being wanted to disown Chris Christie when he spoke, and Ben Carson seemed to hover somewhere between a casual nap and the deepest of REM cycles.

To the naked eye skimming headlines Friday morning, the contest on Fox Business Network was standard operating procedure. With one big exception — moderators Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo offered the most unabashedly biased performance in the presidential primaries to date. They asked questions that played to Republicans’ strengths, they neglected to ask follow-ups and kept the conversation centered on the candidates’ strengths — national security, gun rights and Obama-bashing.

The softballs started early with a question to Gov. Christie regarding appropriate use of military action by a president, a question worthy of any primary debate. That is, if the question had not been so loaded. Bartiromo prefaced her inquiry with discussion of Iran’s capture of American sailors, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, “an aggressive China,” a deteriorating Middle East and a stronger ISIS. “Sometimes,” she continued, teeing it up for Christie. “It seems the world is on fire.” Offering a clearly alarmed summary of evil in the world, coaxing Christie into his bread and butter of fear mongering and “no-nonsense” statements, Bartiromo’s question simplified the complexities of national security and military engagement beyond all reason. How do we keep Americans safe? Strengthen the military. Talk to our allies. It’s that easy!

Later, Trump was asked about whether or not, if he should win the White House, he could unite the Republican Party. The moderators waited politely as the front-runner chose to dance around the question, reciting a slice of his stump speech on incompetence and anger. Time constraints then (supposedly) forbade Bartiromo’s follow-up that anyone at home might have phrased, “Did you even try to answer the question, or were you distracted by a bumblebee while I asked it and decided to just spout your usual nonsense?”

To be fair, Cavuto spoke up and asserted, “That wasn’t my question” before Marco Rubio picked up too much steam when attempting to pivot from a question on the Common Core to national security. I was ready to chalk this one up to seven politicians, whose bad habit of not answering questions was exacerbated by the pressure and fanfare of the approaching Iowa caucuses. The moderators were struggling, but maybe ascribing too much of the blame to them was unfair. But then came the most ridiculous question of them all.

Introduced through the question of whether or not Bill Clinton’s past indiscretions are a legitimate topic in this election, Ben Carson was asked, “What do you think of the notion that Hillary Clinton is an enabler of sexual misconduct?”

Ignoring how irrelevant this question should be to Republican primary voters (though the question was met with applause) and bypassing the ridiculously misogynistic notion that a woman is somehow responsible for a man’s misconduct, consider this question for what it really says — Ben Carson, would you like to take a free shot at the Democratic front-runner, who we view as the devil incarnate? Here, let me provide you with some ammo. Fire away with condescension and platitudes about values.

Through loaded questions, softballs and a strange aversion to ask follow-ups, the journalistic failures of the moderators allowed the candidates to play to their strengths of grandstanding and fear mongering. Trump spoke about “bombings all over,” and predicted “many to follow” in the footsteps of Paris. Christie told us how, if you want to keep your homes and your families safe, “you cannot give Hillary Clinton a third term of Barack Obama’s leadership.” Carson summoned up images of cyberbombs, attacks on our electrical grid and “dirty bombs,” (shortly before he misused the word existential, which is another story entirely). Why? Because the basis of these campaign strategies is fear. Fear of who in the world wants to attack us, who is coming to take your guns and the apocalyptic post-American society that will exist if a Democrat wins.

Just like Burgess Meredith in “Rocky II,” the moderators were clearly in the GOP’s corner, introducing Hillary Clinton as some sort of Clubber Lang in a pantsuit, egging them on in a less than subtle way. But don’t take my word for it. Count the number of follow-ups. Go back and read the questions asked. Hear how they were set up. Listen to the tone and bias. Hear how it has no place in political journalism. Fox Business did its job Thursday night. Unfortunately, that job apparently was not to present the best form of argument to the American people, but to insulate the GOP contenders and drum up a few soundbites along the way. Look no further than the litany of topics omitted from the conversation.

Issues from the minimum wage to the skyrocketing cost of higher education, from income inequality to campaign finance reform and women’s reproductive rights were not deemed important enough to grace the stage. However, the cardinal sin may have been that just a 15-minute drive away from the site of the Charleston AME Church shooting, the role of race in criminal justice was mentioned once, by Jeb Bush.

Why? Because Republicans are much better at talking about ISIS, immigration and Bill Clinton’s sex life.

Brett Graham can be reached at btgraham@umich.edu. 

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