There's an old adage in the newspaper business: Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel. The Republican presidential debaters in Colorado last week openly and vigorously ignored it in their desire to tap into the public unpopularity of the folks who bring you the news, in print or on television and the Internet.
They spent a fair amount of their allotted time complaining about the tone and content of the CNBC interrogators. And they were echoed by Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus afterward, who sulked that "CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled."
His lament only invited conclusions that his party's 10 candidates didn't do very well and hence needed a defense from the GOP chairman. But in a sense he took his cue from several of them, including Donald Trump, an avid baiter of the press, who whined that some of the questions were "nasty." If that isn't the pot calling the kettle black, nothing is.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who needed a strong debate to lift himself out of the pack of also-rans and otherwise had a strong night, declared at one point that the Democrats "have the ultimate super PAC. It's called the mainstream media." That brought prolonged applause from the auditorium crowd.
Some of the questions were, to be sure, a mite churlish. John Harwood, who is also a veteran reporter for The New York Times, coupled his question about Mr. Trump's plan to cut taxes by $10 trillion without boosting the federal deficit by asking if Mr. Trump's campaign was "a comic-book version of a presidential campaign." Mr. Trump, in uncustomary low dudgeon, muttered that "it's not a very nicely asked question."
For once, the usually garrulous real estate magnate failed to dominate the stage. Nor did retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has overtaken Mr. Trump in some polls with his calm and soft-spoken demeanor. For all his notable courtesy, Dr. Carson seized the lament against the moderators when he was asked about his association with a medical firm under an ethical cloud. As many in the audience booed, Dr. Carson slyly remarked, "See? They know," and was lustily applauded for the retort.
Two of the candidates who most needed a strong debate night to get traction, Mr. Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, led the beat-the-press chorus. Along with Mr. Rubio's jibe about the media as super PAC, Mr. Cruz seized on some of the other questions to make the same point.
"This is not a cage match," he said. "You look at the questions: Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain? Ben Carson, can you do the math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don't you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?"
Mr. Bush, who may have needed a strong debate more than the others after his two previous debate performances were widely judged as unimpressive and Mr. Trump taunted him as "low energy," failed to spark again. Mr. Rubio, his former protege in Florida, found an opening by retorting to Mr. Bush's dig that if he wanted to campaign for the presidency, he could resign his Senate seat "and let someone else take the job." The only reason Mr. Bush was attacking him now, Mr. Rubio said, "is because we're running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you."
When Mr. Trump claimed near the debate's end that he and Dr. Carson had forced CNBC to shorten its length of the debate, Mr. Harwood insisted it always had been scheduled for two hours, which finally ran a bit longer. For all the carping of the Republican candidates and their party chairman about the "nasty" questions posed by the CNBC moderators, the encounter shed considerable light on some of the major issues of the campaign.
In the end, the free television time the debates accord these White House hopefuls is always too good for them to turn down. One would think they would find better use for the bounty handed them than to complain at such length about the questions posed, be they sweet or nasty. As Gov. George Wallace of Alabama used to wail, "Everbody's always kickin' my dog."
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is email@example.com.