Let’s get right to it: Wolf Blitzer exceeded all of my expectations as moderator of Tuesday night’s Republican presidential candidate debate. The longtime CNN host came prepared with sharp questions on terrorism, national security, and the various candidates’ respective plans for defeating the former and maintaining the latter. He kept the debate moving and did a decent job preventing candidates from exceeding their allotted time. (Having a time bell helped, even if Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. John Kasich routinely ignored it.) I was particularly impressed with how Blitzer handled Cruz at one point when the Texas senator simply would not back down from trying to talk over the other candidates and co-moderator Hugh Hewitt. Unlike pretty much every other moderator at every other debate this year, Blitzer wouldn’t back down, either. “Wait your turn. We have two hours. We'll have plenty of time,” he told Cruz. “These are the rules you all agreed to. Hugh, go ahead with your question.”
Though Blitzer directed more questions to the front-runners than to the laggards, he still gave those laggards ample time to distinguish themselves, and despite protestations to the contrary from candidates such as Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, Blitzer managed to find the right mix. I won’t take back every bad thing I’ve ever said about Blitzer; as a game-show guy, I’ll never quite get over his Celebrity Jeopardy fiasco. But I came away from this debate with a new respect for the man, as I imagine many of his (many, many) critics did, too. Blitzer showed some serious chops as both as a moderator and as a journalist. Good job, Wolf!
I was surprised by Blitzer’s good performance because I’ve never found him to be a particularly incisive anchor or reporter—at least not in recent decades. Back in May, I sharply criticized his clumsy and dull work covering the riots in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray. But credit where it’s due: Blitzer was sharp Tuesday night. His co-moderators, Hewitt and CNN’s Dana Bash, were also sharp, often formulating their questions by quoting candidates’ own words or voting records back to them and pressing for a justification. Blitzer called on each of them frequently, like a football coach sending in a change-of-pace running back to keep the defense off balance. The result was a debate that was surprisingly substantive—and relatively devoid of ugly demagoguery.
All three moderators were unafraid to note when a candidate failed to answer a question and to then push that candidate to do so. Take, for example, Hewitt’s first question of the evening, directed to Cruz. “Sen. Cruz, you've said you disagree with Mr. Trump's policy [on banning non-American Muslims from the United States]. I don't want to cage match, but Republican primary voters deserve to know, with the kind of specificity that you delivered in your nine Supreme Court arguments, how you disagree with Mr. Trump. Would you spell that out with us?” Not only was this question a fair one, it was well-constructed; by citing Cruz’s Supreme Court track record, Hewitt communicated that Cruz was capable of mustering specific arguments and put the onus on the candidate to do so here. When Cruz sidestepped the initial question, Hewitt pushed back: “So, you're saying you disagree because [Trump is] too broad and you have more narrower focus. Why do you disagree with him?”
The whole night went like this, more or less. I appreciated an extended section on cybersecurity for which Blitzer began with Carly Fiorina: “Ms. Fiorina, as you pointed out, you were a CEO in Silicon Valley on 9/11. Companies there say they won't help the FBI crack encrypted [data] from ISIS. Should they be forced to?” When Fiorina didn’t answer the question, Blitzer came right back and asked it again, and elicited a plainspoken answer from the candidate. He did the same thing immediately thereafter when he asked Trump about how the candidate “recently suggested closing ‘that Internet up.’ Those were your words as a way to stop ISIS from recruiting online. Are you referring to closing down actual portions of the Internet? Some say that would put the U.S. in line with China and North Korea.” When Trump didn’t answer the question, Blitzer asked it again:
Blitzer: Let me follow up, Mr. Trump. So, are you open to closing parts of the Internet?
Trump: I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody. I sure as hell don't want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our Internet. Yes, sir. I am.
Blitzer: Thank you. Gov. Kasich, is shutting down any part of the Internet a good idea?
Kasich: No. I don't think it is.
That’s great work—and I include the Kasich pivot not just because the Ohio governor’s blunt, mildly exasperated response was funny. Throughout the night, Blitzer used Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as proxies to respond to or rebut some of Trump’s more outlandish statements. Trump noticed this and called out Blitzer and CNN on the strategy. “I think it's very sad that CNN leads Jeb Bush down a road by starting all the questions ‘Mr. Trump this, Mr. Trump that,’ ” Trump said at one point. Bush actually seemed eager to take the bait. “If you think this is tough and you are not being treated fairly, imagine what it will be like dealing with Putin,” Bush retorted. “You're a tough guy, Jeb. I know,” Trump said.
As that exchange illustrates, the debate did get ugly at times. It was a very adversarial evening, with lots of sharp exchanges between various candidate pairings—Trump and Bush, Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—but the arguments were largely substantive ones. Though Blitzer never let any of these exchanges go on for too long, he always gave the candidates a little room to fight, and I’m glad he did. Actual debates are filled with heated exchanges and rebuttals, and substantive disagreements over policies and voting records. Tuesday night’s debate was a substantive debate, and Wolf Blitzer and his colleagues deserve great credit for making this happen. Once more, with feeling: Good job, Wolf!