What to make of that debate last night? It seems it left a lot of political analysts confused and scrambling for an interpretation. Even our most astute observers of the race, like Josh Marshall, were left scratching their heads. Ben Smith, at Politico, issued a simple “Wow.” No less an Obamaniac than Andrew Sullivan had to admit that he falls “in between” about whether his man showed enough toughness. And I won’t even bother with the post-debate wrap-ups, in which pundits tried desperately to fit it all into some tight little narrative, and succeeded only in sounding silly.

The problem is that the debate, like the actual race—like real life—was a complex thing. Watch any isolated five minutes of last night’s scrum and you get a different storyline—the candidates snarling or making nice, Obama on the defensive or Obama sharp, Hillary passionate or Hillary vicious, Edwards out of it or Edwards strangely dominating. It was all there (except any real South Carolina issues, of course, but you can read Bob Herbert’s column in The New York Times today for that).

Maybe the difficulty of defining the contours of this campaign and its candidates provides a necessary dose of humbling for the insta-analysis business. If, to borrow the words of Irving Kristol, the likes of Chris Matthews and James Carville are being mugged by reality, that might not be such a bad thing. The more chastened everyone is by the failure of this race to comport to the oversimplified, artificial narratives that the press insists on stuffing everything into, perhaps the more careful—even thoughtful—we will be going forward.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.