WASHINGTON – Has there ever been a more peevish pack, a more petulant populace, than the 2016 Republican presidential contenders?
The complaining began hours before Wednesday night’s debate in Boulder.
“I am now in Colorado looking forward to what I am sure will be a very unfair debate!” Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday morning.
Trump, the fading front-runner, was pre-emptively complaining about the way CNBC would conduct the debate. He had previously complained that the debates were too long and had too many people.
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Marco Rubio has been complaining that the Senate is too “frustrating” for him to go to the trouble of showing up. Jeb Bush, noting other “cool things” he could do, has been complaining that the campaign is too nasty. John Kasich complained about his rivals, saying “I’ve about had it with these people.” Rand Paul complained that his own campaign was forcing him to do “dumbass” live-streaming of his activities. And Trump complained that “evangelicals let me down” in Iowa. The campaigns even complained about the size and quality of their holding rooms at the debate facility.
At the debate itself, the grievances tumbled forth in bulk.
CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla asked Ted Cruz a question about the debt limit. Cruz’s reply? “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media.” (There had already been several questions about taxes.) “How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?” Cruz asked, citing “fawning” questions at the Democratic debate.
Cruz used up his time without saying anything about the debt limit, and when the moderators moved on, he complained: “You don’t want to hear the answer.”
The constant carping is not without purpose: It avoids the need to engage deeply in substance. Moderator John Harwood asked Trump about his promise to cut taxes by $10 trillion without increasing the deficit and asked whether this is “a comic-book version of a presidential campaign.”
“It’s not a very nicely asked question,” Trump protested.
When Quintanilla asked Rubio about an editorial in Florida’s Sun Sentinel calling for the senator to resign because he has missed so many Senate votes, Rubio responded by complaining about the newspaper.
“It’s actually evidence of the bias that exists in the American media today,” he said.
Bush pointed out that Rubio was endorsed by the Sun Sentinel, and he scolded Rubio for his Senate absences – to which Rubio responded by saying Bush was complaining only because “someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”
When the subject did turn to substance, there was trouble, as when CNBC’s Becky Quick asked Carson to explain his tax plan, based on a 10 percent to 15 percent flat tax (Carson hasn’t decided) that would force at least a 40 percent cut in government.
“That’s not true,” Carson said, without evidence.
“That is true. I looked at the numbers,” Quick informed him.
“When we put all the facts down, you’ll be able to see that it’s not true. It works out very well,” Carson said.
Kasich pointed out the obvious: “This stuff is fantasy.”
“Folks, we’ve got to wake up,” Kasich said, arguing that Trump’s immigration proposals – deport 11 million people! – are equally fantastic.
Trump’s substantive response to Kasich? “His poll numbers tanked … and he got nasty.”
There was genuine substance over the two hours, but when in doubt the candidates defaulted to complaining about the referee. When Quick pointedly asked Rubio about his personal financial troubles, Rubio responded, “You just listed a litany of discredited attacks from Democrats and my political opponents, and I’m not going to waste 60 seconds detailing them all.”
Quintanilla asked Carson, now the nominal front-runner, about his 10-year involvement with a controversial nutritional-supplement company. “I didn’t have an involvement,” Carson said, complaining, “That is total propaganda, and this is what happens in our society: Total propaganda.”
Quintanilla pointed out that Carson was on the company home page. But it didn’t matter. Some in the audience, joining with Carson in protest of the legitimate questioning, were booing.
When Harwood interrupted Chris Christie to clarify his answer about energy, Christie told Harwood he was “rude.” When talk turned to immigration, Trump groused about “these nasty and ridiculous questions.” On the topic of Trump’s “moral authority,” Trump said, “Such a nasty question.”
Even in his closing statement, Trump complained about “these folks at CNBC” who wanted a “three and a half”-hour debate.
“Just for the record,” Harwood said, “the debate was always going to be two hours.”
“That is not right!” Trump howled. “You know that is not right!” The audience booed.
Minutes after the debate ended, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus tweeted that “CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled.”
But how about his petulant would-be presidents?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.