On Debates and Disappointments

Every season on American Idol, one of the heavy favorites goes home way too early. Chris Daughtry, for example, was sent packing even though he was apparently far more popular than the three contestants who survived him (including the winner, and subsequent flop, Taylor Hicks). So shocking have the departures been that the show instituted a “judges save” to allow the judges to overrule the numb idiots in the electorate (nobody says outright that they’re numb idiots, but the message is palpable). Additionally, the Idol judges regularly repeat the obvious message that “you have to get out and vote for your favorites if you don’t want them to go home.” The Idol example, silly though it may seem, is instructive for thinking about last night’s presidential debate.

For anyone listening to the debate analysis, Romney wiped the floor with President Obama. I’ve heard commentators announce that Romney “destroyed,” “obliterated,” and “dominated” Obama. On the Diane Rehm Show, the three guests, ostensibly representing the entire spectrum of American political belief, agree that “this format isn’t really Obama’s strong suit.” On MSNBC, Obama’s liberal supporters are like howler monkeys, shrieking about the President’s failure to “show up” and “get the job done.” As on the teevee, there is widespread disbelief and dismay across the liberal social media landscape. And as if that all wasn’t enough, Obama and his team are apparently so demoralized that his handlers barely showed up to spin the debate last night (one Twitter commenter noted 17 Romney surrogates to only 5 Obamanites talking to the press after the debate), and the Obama campaign has been all but silent this morning. Surely, it seems, last night’s debate was a catastrophic blow to the Obama campaign. But, I think we forget too quickly the American Idol lesson.

For the past several weeks, Obama has looked insurmountable following a series of devastating gaffes on Romney’s part. The most prominent one, of course, is the secretly recorded video of Romney calling 47% of the country leeches and victims that has been making the rounds for the past few weeks. The election forecasters InTrade and FiveThirtyEight blog have had Obama at a huge advantage to win both the electoral and popular votes (not much has changed since last night as that’s concerned, by the way—FiveThirtyEight still gives Obama better than an 80% chance of winning the election.). While this seems like a good thing for the President’s chance at a second term, Chris Daughtry can tell you that there’s nothing worse for turning out voters than a sure thing. In fact, the more certain the President’s chances are, the more he has to worry that voters will lose their motivation to turn out on November 6th.

This put(s) the President in a tough position as a debater. Does he, as Chris Matthews and Ed Shultz suggested, crush his opponent on stage to show that he’s the big man on campus? Or does he soft-pedal into the debate, hoping to convince his supporters that the race is still a tight one and he needs their energy, their fervor, or at least their begrudging support come election day? I think we got a pretty good idea of which path Obama decided was the smarter one. It was no surprise, then, when Senior Advisor to the Obama campaign, David Plouffe, said in an interview on MSNBC that Obama thinks that “in the long run” voters will recognize who the best leader is. Anyone who watched Al Gore’s dominating performance against George W. Bush in 2000, and then watched the electorate revolt against the incumbent because mean old Mr. Gore hurt poor Bushie Wushie’s feelings might recognize the genius of this strategy. I assume it was strategic, for what it’s worth, because, while debates might not be Obama’s greatest platform, there is no evidence that I can see that he or his advisors have ever been anything but masterful at campaigning (whether or not you agree that he’s been great at actually governing). The absence of “messaging” or “spin” following the debates reinforced my sense that Obama’s team made a strategic choice that was far removed from winning last night’s debacle.

As I’ve watched the debate analysis over the past 12 hours or so, it appears the strategy is working. Liberals and Democrats (which are not, by the way, always the same thing) have spent lots of hours and energy rehashing and reasserting Obama’s accomplishments as Commander-in-Chief. Obama’s weakness last night has provided an impetus for renewed energy and commitment on the part of his voting base, in no small part because they’re being reminded (ad nauseum) of his accomplishments over the past four years. On the other hand, conservatives and Republicans (again, not necessarily coterminous) have spent much of the same time lauding Romney’s debate bona fides. For Romney, I can’t help but wonder about whether his push to the middle on things like tax cuts, Medicare, and even Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act (“I’ll get rid of Obamacare and replace it with Romney Care on a state-by-state basis?) will re-energize his voting base or de-energize them. I doubt they’ll be rushing to change teams, but there wasn’t a lot of what the pundits call “red meat” for his supporters to get them excited about casting a ballot in his favor. For people whose minds were made up prior to the debates, nothing that happened last night is likely to change their minds, but much happened that might have changed their motivation. For those who have yet to make up their minds, I imagine this event (and all the energy surrounding it) will inform their eventual decision, but only mildly given the inevitable intensity of the next 5 weeks of campaigning.

Which brings me to my final thought, only tangentially related to what I’ve already said. As I surfed Fizzborg, the Twitter, and other haunts of the political commentariat last night and this morning, a theme kept surfacing: these debates were nothing but political theater, and therefore a waste of time. I find this assertion somewhat distressing for a number of reasons, but I will restrain my observation to just two of them here. First, a large number of people claiming the irrelevance of last night’s debates are also, in other circumstances, wont to claim that they’re troubled by Americans’ widespread disconnection from politics and aversion to democratic civic engagement. This is especially the case among academics, and yet, the sort of abdication I saw repeatedly in regards to the debate made me wonder: If we, the people who are supposed to be professionally critically engaged in this type of civic event, can’t get invested, how can be surprised when our fellow Americans don’t engage either? In tuning out, it seems to me, we risk performing the failure of our own beliefs.

 Which leads to my second point. The fact is, a lot happened last night, and the baying of the pundit class was as much a part of what happened as were the lunge-and-parry onstage. The debaters said little and meant even less, but to dismiss it as meaningless theater is a tremendous mistake. This is the political environment in which we live—strategy, messaging, and manipulation are (and have always been) fundamental parts of the process. We act surprised and dismayed, but that’s because we’re playing at being willfully naïve, not because there’s anything so surprising. In fact, there was nothing, and I mean nothing that was truly surprising last night. In the absence of some astonishing revelation, it is easy to dismiss the debates as meaningless. But it is exactly the absence of revelation that invites us, and every potential voter along with us, to consider more deeply the “meaning” of a series of debates that seem absent of any meaning. A tremendous amount of time, energy, and emotion was invested in last night’s event, and to pretend that it was wasted because (1) the debaters weren’t honest or forthcoming enough or (2) the exchange didn’t provide enough revelatory fireworks, is to become the numb, mindless sheep that each party is fond of accusing the other party of catering to.

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