If you're of a liberal bent and the upcoming Sept. 26 presidential debate fills you with dread, you're probably not alone, and it has nothing to do with the relative performances of Barack Obama or John McCain.
Four years ago, John Kerry did as well as a candidate could do in a debate situation: He mastered the facts, he was calm and collected, and George W. Bush was reduced to repeating his constant poker tell ("Of course we're after Saddam Hussein--I mean bin Laden."), as if every time he was addressed, we were accusing him of something. Even if, collectively, we were.
Yet, Bush won the election. Some of that can be laid to the advance strategizing of Karl Rove, who presciently loaded the ballot in a number of swing states with polarizing gay-marriage constitutional amendments and initiatives, bringing out the Christian conservatives. In the end, it was in the state of Ohio where the fruits of that plan pushed Bush over the 270 electoral votes needed to win, and never again would Bush need to debate anyone who disagreed with him and his record.
Now, in 2008, the Republicans have once again nominated someone who has admitted he has no expertise in the economy in a time of massive economic upheaval, and whose vice-presidential choice is unknowing, uncaring, incurious, and wrong on important matters ranging from science and diplomacy to presidential prerogatives and recent history. And despite the last eight years, when it has become very clear that knowing something is a major requirement for the job of president, there are millions of Americans who still think being president requires no more expertise than being able to peer into the soul of the G-8 leader sitting next to you. And we've seen how that worked out.
I have every faith that Obama will acquit himself well in his debate with McCain. I wish I could say that the American press, which grades debates on a curve measured the same way one judges the appearances of average homecoming kings and queens, and will likely make the event all about something petty, shallow, and stupid.
Al Gore came out of a debate with Bush having acquitted himself well enough, but rather than pointing out that if one is running to be the head of the government, one should know things like the subject of the Dingell-Norwood Bill (it was about health care, now one of the defining issues of the era), commentators focused on Gore's sighs. Frankly, were I in Gore's position, I'd have been sighing, too, since petty visual concerns and media fabrications (inventing the internet, anyone?) overrode the fact that one candidate was informed, prepared, and smart, and the other was qualified to sit next to you and drink a beer. And once again, we've seen how that worked out.
The way debates are decided is based not on what is actually said, but how the candidates are graded against some amorphous and arbitrary "expectations" created by the giant media cloud that eventually coalesces into part of the "story line." Gore, they said, was an overweening know-it-all, and the sighing then weighed against him in the already-established media-created "narrative." Did being informed about the issues of the day matter? Not anymore.
Unfortunately (for us), the upcoming debate will likely be framed by the unprecedented Wall Street bailout proposed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Economics is hard. I'm not an expert, and the odds are you aren't either. And it is on subjects like this where the conservative tendency to play the simple-sounding answer off against the complex and difficult-to-explain truth appeals to the general nature of the American mind. H.L. Mencken put it best in 1926: "The average man, finding himself getting beyond his depth, instantly concludes that what lies beyond is simply nonsense."
Right around now you will start hearing the campaign spokespeople from each side praising the debate skills of their opponent (the only time in a campaign you will ever hear nice things said about the other guy), and the television commentators beginning their effort at setting the expectations against which those candidates will be graded. And immediately after the debate, you'll hear the spin artists from each side talk about how well their man did, no matter what actually came out of the nominees' mouths.
Hopefully my worry will be unfounded. But lately, it seems like more and more, it is less of a handicap to know less and less, and this is a year when it's too important for the winner to know nothing.
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