Political Animal


October 16, 2012 11:45 AM The I-Hate-Debates Club

By Ed Kilgore

As part of our preparations for watching tonight’s second presidential candidates’ debate, we have a moral obligation to pay attention to at least one tirade about the exaggerated importance of presidential candidates’ debates, and why that is a perhaps a sign of the End Times. Today’s featured jeremiad is from TNR’s Alec MacGillis:

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.

MacGillis is not afraid to point fingers at specific promoters of the Hunger Games interpretation of debates, offering a choice cut of Andrew Sullivan rhetoric about the contempt for supporters shown by Obama in the first debate, along with Sullivan’s judgment that “he’s a goner” if he doesn’t turn it all around tonight. Alec’s sardonic commentary:

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.

But others get their scolding as well, from big-foot journalists also looking for the “game-changing” moment to those participating in the hive mind of Twitter:

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.

No good sermon can avoid an altar call, and MacGillis does offer a plan for the redemption of the sinful:

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.

This is all good sound advice, and in my own small way I’ll try to remember MacGillis’ injunctions when writing about the debate tonight and tomorrow. But the truth is that the only way to contain the debate hype will be if the event is rather boring and neither candidate excels or fails. Another “big win” for either candidate and we’re back to the child’s language of making the debate bigger than the whole galaxy.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • castanea on October 16, 2012 12:03 PM:

    Debates are like any interview for a job.

    Many a charlatan has been able to schmooze his/her way into a position, regardless of how poor his/her actual job experience is, and many a qualified candidate has been passed over because he/she wasn't the most perfect outgoing jibber-jabberer EVAR.

    The notion of debates being the crux of any political race does nothing but serve the interests of unqualified, rotten candidates who are able to control the moment by talking loudly and spouting lies.

    Shame, really, that so many Americans have seemed keen on allowing Romney his "shake the Etch-a-Sketch" moment by being the equivalent of an empty, back-slapping, glad-hander in the debate.

  • c u n d gulag on October 16, 2012 12:07 PM:

    Ya know, I love MSNBC, but I gotta give them the lions share of the blame for the way the first debate got covered by everyone else.

    Sure, when it ended, I was pissed! But I was more pissed-off at Romney for lying and lying, than Obama for not countering more effectively.

    And then Rachel, and Ed, and Chris, got all Sullie-hysterical, and FOX caught wind of that, and on top of their usual heaping scoops of BS, now had their "Even the Liberals at MSNBC though Mitt crushed Barry!" cherry-on-top.

    Skip the performance aspect as much as you can, MSM, and concentrate on the lies and BS coming out of Romney's mouth.

  • Varecia on October 16, 2012 12:08 PM:

    I still would like to know how many states are in the midst of early voting while all of this is going on.

    CAPTCHA says 39,628 nmscumnr, but I feel fairly certain that's over inflated.

  • max on October 16, 2012 12:56 PM:

    But the truth is that the only way to contain the debate hype will be if the event is rather boring and neither candidate excels or fails.

    Geez, this is easy! Fox: Romney wins! CNN: Tie. MSNBC: the most unpredictable, but roughly speaking, Obama will do better tonight except for all those nagging questions and Dark Money. (Apparently MSNBC thinks liberals like hearing terrible news all the time, so I'm guessing the debates aren't any different.) (I wouldn't know, I avoid cable TV news like the plague because watching it makes you dumber. I'm getting older - I don't need no help. And if I did I can take up X sports, which will at least be fun.)

    (TV) R's will be busy saying this was an even better performance than the last debate, even though it wasn't, centrists will posit that the American people don't like Obama, probably with his being so obviously {sniff} liberal, but do like deficit reduction, so why doesn't Romney talk about cutting Medicare, and (TV) liberals will be keen to prove they can hack like Rove (considering the situation, they should do that).

    There will deploring of the sad state of our national discourse and sad resolution that we need to come together to cut the deficit. And a plea for pleas for unity.

    There will be a great many unfunny jokes on twitter. (Because 140 chars is not enough to do it right, kids, even the one-liners. Either you sound like an idiot, or you sound like a dick.)

    Andrew Sullivan will experience at least one, and probably two, maybe three radical, rapid changes of emotion that would normally indicate a need for medication.

    It should go without saying, but Romney will lie his butt off to prove his severe conservative moderation.

    In the real world, they're shifting the attack back to their right, and leaving the left feint hanging, since they're now in keep-the-base-rallied mode. (Because: America is a center-right country! So all they need to do is get out the Klan vote and it's cool!)

    People at the town hall will ask some very good questions, but they will also ask questions that would embarrass Lehrer. Probably a 50-50 split, I'm thinkin'.

    ['I have no idea what the actually spin machine result will be, because that depends on what actually happens on stage. No telling' about that. Should be amusing though.']

  • Daddy Love on October 16, 2012 1:22 PM:

    Blood is on the dance floor
    Blood is on the knife
    Obama's got your number
    And Obama says its right

  • beejeez on October 16, 2012 1:24 PM:

    Yeah, I wish these debates weren't such big deals. But since we have to deal with them, I'll just say this: I'm hoping Obama doesn't try to reinvent the wheel and get artificially histrionic. An average performance -- and that's what it is -- should be enough.

  • meady on October 16, 2012 1:31 PM:

    @max is probably right. I may watch the debate, but I almost certainly will not watch the post debate analysis. I will be reading my favorite blogs though. And Ed, I share your disdain for the anticipations of the debates and how the hype over performance seems to dissapate any sense of performance, accomplishments or core values. It is like we are back in ancient Rome watching the gladiators fight. Very tiresome. In my unofficial facebook friends polls, honestly Romney has gained traction amongst white women. In my small world, the overwhelming mysogyny of the Republicans is not sticking. I'm flabberghasted and confused. I still have faith that Obama will prevail, I just don't know how that will translate into real world activities. Will the next four years consist of keeping the toxic sludge from eliminating vital social programs? While true, not a good message for 2016. Forward is the correct direction, but I'm still not convinced that the Democrats will be able to do anything besides maintain status quo. That is not a compelling message for the next election...

  • Danp on October 16, 2012 1:33 PM:

    Regardless of any new policy, misleading statement or absurd accusation, the debate reporting will sound like the playoff game I also didn't watch. I'll hear who won. There will be a gaffe, a monster snark moment, and a body language cue that won or lost it for our side or the others'. It won't matter who suffers as a result of the policies of the candidates, because "there you go again" or "lockbox" are the things that change the world.

  • jjm on October 16, 2012 2:43 PM:

    Will Obama ask Mitt how exactly his presidency would differ from Bush II's?

  • Severian on October 16, 2012 2:55 PM:

    I shudder to think what some of the questions will be tonight. As some have pointed out here, the very fact that you're an "undecided" voter at this point means that you're not representative of the public, nor are you (probably) all that clever or clued in. Remember that guy from the '92 townhall who demanded that each candidate tell him when their parties would run a woman for president - but insisted that they not NAME any actual women in their answers? Yeah, questions like that. (Shudder)

  • John B. on October 16, 2012 7:46 PM:

    "the truth is that the only way to contain the debate hype will be if the event is rather boring... ."

    That is the fundamental problem with televised debates in an age of Foxy disinformation and political illiteracy. The average American sits down to watch a debate because they think of it as dueling gladiators -- entertainment on the order of "Dancing with the stars." If they don't get what they want no one will watch the ads in between the commentators who say it was boring or buy the newspapers that report it was boring.

    Ergo, the commentators and the newspapers do what? Make up a narrative that justifies their existence. In advance, often, just to be sure.

    And the supreme irony is that months later those same commentators and columnists will drag out from the dust bins and wipe off a 'new' narrative about how the debates "didn't matter" -- or maybe they did -- but in either event it was the viewing/reading/slack-jawed consuming public that decided.

    Ha ha. As if....