Like millions of Americans, I spent my Wednesday evening tuned into the second GOP debate.  

My objective was a simple one: To write an opinion piece covering the five policy areas that CNN failed to mention but should have. There was some material there. Education issues were notably absent. And as Gov. Christie continues to reiterate, the 71 percent of the federal budget that goes to debt repayment and entitlement spending was given short shrift.    

But admittedly as the night drew to a close, the full gamut had pretty much been covered. That was not the story. In the end, it was the network’s handling of these issues that took center stage. 

25.1 million viewers tuned into the Fox News debate on August 6th – the “highest rated non-sports program in cable history.” CNN took note – and set about putting good ratings above aspirations to a lofty debate.  

They extended the debate to last over three hours. They framed just about every question so as to corner a candidate or invite antagonism. And in the final stanza, they managed to turn a gorgeous event space into an over-obvious prop.  

Here were some of the particular low points:  

·       A 4th Bush Term 

Not once, but twice, Gov. Bush had to answer for the decisions of his father and brother.  

He was first told to name his potential foreign policy team and whether or not its members would feature familiar faces. No one else was asked this. Why would they be? This far out it would be beyond presumptuous to have drawn up such a list.   

Further, the implication was that appointing anyone from a previous Bush administration would be a mistake. That is a dangerous insinuation. As Sen. Rubio (R-Fla.) pointed out: “You better be able to lead our country on the first day.” That will not be possible in a White House bereft of any collective experience post-dating 1988.   

Part two of the family series came when the appointment of Chief Justice Roberts came under fire. Gov. Bush did not work for his father or brother. He did not formally weigh in on that nomination decision. And yet he was subject to a Sen. Cruz (R-Texas) diatribe on how the Bush family botched its two Supreme Court nominations all the same.           

·       He Said, She Said 

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpPossible GOP challenger says Trump doesn't doesn't deserve reelection, but would vote for him over Democrat O'Rourke: Trump driving global, U.S. economy into recession Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms MORE was on the wrong end of this in particular, but he was not alone. The entire format was designed not to convene a discussion, but to incite an argument.   

Of the 28 substantive questions asked, at least 19 were framed by stating the view of another candidate or political official first, then asking if the respondent disagreed. Instead of asking Cruz if tearing up the Iran deal on day one was practical, they first noted that Gov. Kasich (R-Ohio) said it was not. Before bringing up Kim Davis to Gov. Huckabee, they brought up Bush’s opposing view and bluntly asked: “Is he wrong?”  

Essentially, you could not make a point without directly assailing someone standing a few feet away. It may have made for good TV. But it forced the candidates to give increasingly political answers. As a result, those hoping for an expansive policy dialogue were left empty handed.   

·       Landing the Plane 

The fight to commandeer the Reagan mantel raged on. This is standard practice by now, one underscored by the chosen venue. By my count, the word “Reagan” was used 45 times. By contrast, Lincoln’s name came up once, and only then to help Donald Trump deliver a punch line. All of this followed up on the first debate, in which seven different candidates mentioned Reagan.  

That is why the closing question was so unnecessary.  

Jake Tapper, asked the following:

“Ronald Reagan, the 40th President, used the plane behind you to accomplish a great many things. Perhaps, most notably, to challenge Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall, and ultimately, to make peace with the USSR. How will the world look different once your Air Force One is parked in the hangar of your presidential library?”

Translation: What is your intended legacy?

But he took the long road (in this case the runway). As a result, everyone had to pay reverence en route to his or her actual final remarks – some made indiscernible in the process.

And so CNN got the debate it wanted. Ratings were good, barbs sprang forth, and the pundits got their sound bites. But did we truly get much closer to separating the cream from the crop? I’m not so sure.

Lucadamo is the lead policy analyst at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.