October 29, 2015 | By

The Shortcomings of CNBC's Republican Debate

CNBC debate moderators (L-R) John Harwood, Becky Quick, and Carl Quintanilla asks questions during the 2016 US Republican presidential candidates debate on October 28, 2015. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

The third Republican debate, held last night in Boulder, Colorado, was meant to cover the economy. That should have been natural terrain for the moderators, some of whom regularly cover business issues on CNBC’s Squawk Box. Yet, the candidates and top Republican officials ended up attacking the moderators over their approach.

Did they have a case?

Before the debate, I was asked by staff for one candidate to try to anticipate what questions might be raised about international economic matters. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think such questions would come up. President Obama is fond of reminding that 95 percent of the world’s consumers live outside the United States.  If you look at today’s GDP numbers, imports and exports combined account for about 30 percent of US GDP. So the international economy matters.

In my reply, I warned that ‘international economic issues have generally gotten short shrift in debates, but maybe CNBC will be different.’ I offered five questions (plus variations) that might reasonably be expected to come up, in decreasing order of likelihood:

1. Is the newly-completed TPP agreement good for the country? (Variation: was NAFTA good for the country?)

2. Has the US economic relationship with China been good for the country? (Variation: how would you change it? Variation: is China a currency manipulator?) 

3. What would you do about American companies moving overseas for tax purposes?

4. Should the US export crude oil? (Variation: What does America’s new energy independence mean?)

5. How would you fix the trade deficit?

Note, these are hardly the only or even the best international economic questions that could have been asked. But they did seem to capture topics that have been prominent in public arguments or covered heavily on CNBC. So how many came up in the actual debate?

None. The closest we got to international trade or finance was a question about the Export-Import Bank. Donald Trump raised corporate tax inversions (#3) and the trade balance (#5) briefly on his own.

In response to ensuing criticisms, CNBC’s vice president of communications Brian Steel said, “People who want to be president of the United States should be able to answer tough questions.”

He’s right. But it would help if the moderators asked those tough questions. 


Phil Levy is senior fellow on the global economy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Previously he was associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He was formerly a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and taught at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. From 2003 to 2006, he served first as senior economist for trade for President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers and then as a member of Secretary of State Rice’s Policy Planning Staff, covering international economic matters. Before working in government, he was a faculty member of Yale University’s Department of Economics for nine years and spent one of those as academic director of Yale’s Center for the Study of Globalization.

His academic writings have appeared in such outlets as The American Economic ReviewEconomic Journal, and theJournal of International Economics. He is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy magazine’s online Shadow Government section and writes on topics including trade policy, economic relations with China, and the European economic crisis. Dr. Levy has testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Joint Economic Committee, the House Committee on Ways and Mean, and the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He received his PhD in Economics from Stanford University in 1994 and his AB in Economics from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1988.


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