October 16, 2008
No, I didn't watch the debate, but I reserve the right to review it.
There are so many experts parsing all the commentary made by the two candidates that you really don't need my opinion on that, especially since I didn't watch. What they miss is that the debates are not about content at all; they are about television.
This was established in the very first television debate, in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, and has never changed. That night the commentators, most of whom were listening on the radio, announced that Nixon had won the debate. He made his points clearly, addressed the issues in the right tone, and bested his young opponent by being a better debater.
But the viewers on the little black-and-white sets of the day saw a fresh, handsome face smiling naturally while an angry balding guy with a five-o'clock shadow and a moist upper lip glowered and carped. They liked the cut of the younger man's jib, they liked that easy laugh, and there was something obnoxious about the darker, hostile other guy.
But year after year, particularly when the two parties wrested the power to conduct the debates away from the more neutral League of Women voters, the debates have retained their one consistent characteristic: Cosmetics. (When the League managed the debates, at least there was a nice crowd of contenders, and a chance for some back-and-forth from candidates who had valid points to make outside the mainstream. Democrats and Republicans declared having such a broad field was unfair to them, since none of these others would win the Presidency, and after all, this democracy business is all about winning.)
Now we get three debates between two guys, and another one between two other guys. That this year the v-p debate produced a guy who was female is beside the point. She was admired for her use of the camera, her ease with telling off the moderator, and her televisual charm.
Even after the third debate of the principle players, the talking heads were focused on the least important thing about the debate, what they were saying. One of them said things that put him clearly in the Liberal column -- heaven forfend -- and the other outlined a Conservative agenda. This is the subject of all the talk today.
Not to worry. The viewers saw something else altogether. They saw a nervous, uncomfortable older guy who looked like a smile would break his face, snapping at the younger, smiling, odd-looking dark guy who tended to drone on in boring, professorial sentences as if we might be asked to take a quiz later.
Then the polls showed the professor inspired the most confidence. He "won" another debate. He may actually win the Presidency. But I'm not counting on it.