The debates are over. What changed as a result of them? Polls show Mitt Romney a lot closer to President Obama — it’s a tighter race ever since Romney’s first-debate victory. By the final debate, Romney had shape-shifted from conservative warrior to agreeable centrist — agreeable in the sense that he spent the night mostly agreeing with what Obama is doing abroad. The message that was sent by his side? Don’t worry, he’s not going to do anything extreme if you elect him. If Romney wins the Presidency, the debates will be seen as a crucial turning point in his campaign. If Obama wins, they’ll be largely forgotten. In this sense, debates every four years follow a similar pattern: Whoever the incumbent is, he is helped or hindered by further exposure of his image and his platform.
But that raises the every-four-years question: Should we be electing Presidents in part because of how well they perform on television, in a stilted, awkward debate format?
Four years ago, the McCain campaign was partially dismantled in the court of public opinion by Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s gaffes, in her debate with Joe Biden but mostly in interviews she gave before and after the debate, and in the constant humor her words inspired from entertainment outlets such as Saturday Night Live, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and David Letterman.
This year, SNL has had a few sharp sketches, but it isn’t doing much to shape the election — Jay Pharoah has a fix on his Obama impression, but he’s not using it to put forth any critique of Obama the way Tina Fey did with her Palin.
No, what’s happened in four years is that it frequently seems as though everyone in the media, plus now every citizen plugged in to social media, plus each candidate himself, is trying to anticipate the comedians. Analysis online — on legitimate news sites, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook — becomes swamped by knowing or witty or crass or lame observations about which guy phrased something more oddly, which candidate came off as less or more “engaged,” which phrase would become a “meme” (“binders full of women”; #horsesandbayonets).
The media we all use, not just the TV anchors’ and pundits’ access to broadcast cameras, has turned every one of us into a pundit. Sometimes that results in a serious, country-wide discussion (as there has been about the differing campaigns’ approach to the economy and women’s reproductive rights, for example). And sometimes it just results in a lot of jeering (as there has been in the criticisms of some of the debate moderators).
God knows it’s all a vexed system. As to whether the debates are worth broadcasting? Hell, yes. Anything that gets people to turn away from regularly scheduled entertainment programming — forces people, since what else are they going to watch, other than the 1,784th episode of House Hunters? — is a good thing. And probably a threatened thing: Don’t you think there’s going to be a movement next time around to shunt the debates off onto cable, so the networks can shirk one of the last vestiges of their civic responsibilities to inform the public? It’s already been suggested that a Fox News anchor and an MSNBC anchor either co-moderate a debate or each moderate separate debates.
Like the election process itself, the debates reflect our contradictory reactions to our small-d democratic system: We love it and we’re frustrated by it; each of us at some point thinks “the other side” is playing dirty, getting away with something. And there also usually comes a point, however fleetingly, when we feel that the person we’re rooting for has somehow, against all odds, revealed himself as an obviously true, worthy leader.
The debates are over. As the old joke goes: Vote early and vote often.