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Against Our Debate Obsession

As you may have heard, the stakes for tonight's debate are huge. Huge! How big are they? So big that one must resort to a child's figure of speech: bigger than everything in the whole wide world. Which actually isn't that far off: the debate, we are told, will go a long way to determining the outcome on Nov. 6, and thus determining whether we are going to keep the Affordable Care Act and raise taxes on the wealthy and return to a more aggressive posture abroad and keep pushing for peace in the Middle East and address climate change and do comprehensive immigration reform and end up with a Supreme Court sharply tilted to one side and...

Yeah, those are big stakes. And you know what? That's nuts. It's nuts that through some combination of media obsession and voter behavior (good luck distinguishing between those two -- it's the ultimate chicken and the egg conundrum) we've found ourselves in a situation where we believe the election of the next president, a process we've been engaged in for the better part of the past year, resides to a great degree on what happens over the course of a few remaining hours of television. We've watched the candidates through countless speeches and interviews and interactions with voters; we've reckoned with their records, in the Senate and White House and in Boston's gold-domed state capital and gold-lined Bain Capital; we've weighed their proposals. And after all that, we are going to decide who has taken command for the home stretch based on who strikes just the right tone in an event that will be over faster than your average high school basketball game.

I know the case for the debates -- that unlike so much else in the campaign (the horse-race stories, the attack ads, etc.) they allow voters to see the candidates up close and side by side, without handlers or artifice, forced to talk about substantive matters. I don't dispute these benefits. I am all for having debates and am as ready as anyone to ridicule candidates who try to get out of participating in them in down-ballot races, where they are particularly valuable given the lack of familiarity candidates at that level may hold for voters. (The recent excuse given by one debate-evading Tennessee incumbent was particularly brazen.) What I am against is loading them with such outsized, be-all-and-end-all significance.

Take, for example, this framing of tonight's event by Andrew Sullivan:

To be given a gift like the Romney 47 percent video is a rare event in national politics. To get it in the fall of an election should have made an Obama victory all but assured. But Obama threw it all back in his supporters' faces, reacting to their enthusiasm and record donations with a performance so execrable, so lazy, so feckless, and so vain it was almost a dare not to vote for him. What he has to do now is so nail these next two debates, so obliterate Romney in both, that he can claw his way back to victory. But if he manages just evenly-matched debates, let alone another Romney win, he's a goner. Elections for president comes down to two individuals. You only get to see them up against each other in the flesh three times. The first time - always the most important - made Romney look like a president and Obama an ex-president. It will take a lot of intelligence, fire and argument to turn that around in the time remaining. And for the first time, after the sucker-punch of the first debate, I'm not entirely sure Obama has it in him.

He's a goner! Even if he turns in decent performances. Yes, we've watched him in office for nearly four years -- through his response to the economic crisis and the legislative morass around the Affordable Care Act and the Bin Laden raid and the Arab Spring...but forget all that. It's all riding on whether he can find that one Clintonesque moment with an unemployed accountant in the town-hall audience, or deliver that one stinging rebuke that encapsulates all that is wrong about Romney Version 7.0 and leaves him "obliterated" on the debate floor.

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Granted, Sullivan has vaulted into a league of his own this month in debate-aggrandizement, but he had to pass plenty of rivals on the way up. There have been endless stories about what the moderators do to get into shape for the events (Candy Crowley, tonight's moderator, practices transcendental meditation, reports the New York Times) and about the stand-in opponents for the debate training sessions (John Kerry, the Times reported Monday, "has been spotted eating pizza and walking around the grounds of the resort with a thick binder filled with color-coded spacers"! ) Mark Halperin today touted his disclosure of the official Memorandum of Understanding for the debates with such portentousness that one might've thought it was the secret contingency plan for taking out the Chinese Navy. His "exclusive" highlights include: "The candidates agreed not to publicly call for any additional debates beyond the Commission-sponsored events; candidates aren’t allowed to cite anyone in the audience (besides family members) during the debate; candidates aren’t allowed to address questions to each other or ask the other candidate to take a pledge; the moderators can’t do 'show of hands' questions." What? No show of hands questions? And you call this a democracy??

Debate preoccupation is no new thing, of course. The events could not be more suited to the political press' timeless desire to treat the race as a sporting event: in the last month alone, two of our most (rightly) esteemed journalists, James Fallows and David Remnick, could not resist  spinning elaborate boxing analogies around this year's debates. But, based on the four presidential election cycles I've now covered, I'm pretty sure that the obsession has gotten more intense over time. And I'm sure it has a lot to do with what former TNR editor Richard Just zeroed in on last week -- Twitter's rising dominance in the campaign media pack. I'm no Twitter-phobe -- I can exchange acerbic apercus with the best of them. (@AlecMacGillis!) But I agree with Just that the medium has only further magnified the debates because the debates inhabit the same realm as this new Twitter-world -- the realm of jab and comeback. I suspect the political press has long been drawn to the debates partly because so many of its (increasingly socially-elite) members engaged in debating somewhere on their path through Andover or Stuyvesant or Harvard, whether on the actual debate team or its late-night dorm-room equivalent. But Twitter has given political reporters all the more reason to exalt the debates as the highest test of aptitude. After all, isn't exchanging succinct points and parries how we now spend so much of our own time, rather than being out talking to people in Dayton or digging into tax proposals or campaign finance rackets? The debates have become the Platonic ideal of campaigning for a glibly cynical couch-potato press: Just sit back and watch, laptop on the lap, iPhone and remote in hand, facile witticisms on the brain. Or if your news organization has the dough, you can actually go to the debate. Which means watching it on a big projection screen in a separate room, spending a few minutes afterward in the spin room, and then heading straight back home, not even bothering to pick up the free bourbon in the swag bag.

What is to be done? Well, there's one possible counterintuitive solution: have more debates. If we really think these things are as valuable as our saturation coverage suggests, why have only three? If we find it necessary to have a dozen or two debates for the primary season, why only three (plus a veep one) between the candidates who are actually going to be on the November ballot? The candidates would presumably object, but adding a couple debates would likely take some pressure off of them, reducing the chances that a single bad night or gaffe would be deemed disastrous.

Barring that long-term reform, though, there is of course something we in the press can do, starting tonight. We can try, each in our own way, to be slightly less hyperbolic and hyperventilating in our coverage. We can make fewer allusions to "cage matches." We can spend more time in the immediate aftermath, when the spin is being shaped, weighing the substantive merits and tactical strengths of the argument rather than counting smiles or sips of water, the sort of theater criticism that has become all the easier now that the networks helpfully show the candidates on split screen. (Amid the million words spilled after the first debate, Ezra Klein was nearly alone in drilling deep into the actual transcript in the days following -- which is especially remarkable given what a big impact the debate had on the course of the race.) And we can do more in the run-up to the final debate to prepare viewers for the arguments they are likely to witness -- I would be far more willing to embrace the claim that debates are the most substantive moments in campaigns if I thought we were doing our utmost to put voters in a position of being able to understand and assess the substance that is being bandied about on their screens.

But as it stands, what we're engaging in borders uncomfortably close on voyeurism. We're the guys at the NASCAR race secretly rooting for a bloody crash; the pervy neighbor across the street peeking from behind the curtain to catch some late-night action. It's no way to cover a campaign -- and it's certainly no way to elect a president.

*Addendum I: Believe it or not, I would make this argument independent of debate outcome. I found the obsessive coverage of Mitt Romney's victory no more tiresome than I did the obsessive coverage of Joe Biden's boffo performance the following week.

*Addendum II: If you're looking for a traditional debate preview laying out what Barack Obama ought to say tonight, I highly recommend E.J. Dionne and Kevin Drum.

*Addendum III: One of the real costs of debate obsession is the stuff that doesn't get covered as a result of it. Right now, what's not being written about enough is what will actually happen in January, beyond all of Romney's varying plans and intonations, if the White House changes hands. Luckily, at least Jon Chait is on that case.