That “Lifetime Subscription to CQ

And other reasons we need to re-think our approach to presidential debates

In their initial analysis of Friday night’s much-buzzed-about presidential debate, the consensus among the punditocracy was that the night was something of a letdown: The debate was—snooze—a tie. “McCain vs. Obama: First presidential debate ends in a draw,” declared the San Jose Mercury News. McCain won on foreign policy, the Wall Street Journal decided; Obama won on the economy. “In a debate that both candidates could ill-afford to lose Friday night, neither did,” the Los Angeles Times opined, “John McCain proved he was resolute and tough; Barack Obama demonstrated that he was smart and polished. And in this case, a tie could be said to favor either.”

Which was just a tad surprising. Because, according to polling conducted immediately after the debate, it was Obama who fared better in the debate. Much better. A CNN poll declared Obama the winner by a margin of 51 percent to McCain’s 38. A CBS poll had Obama at 40 percent, with 22 for McCain, and 38 declaring the debate a draw. Independents in a MediaCurves focus group gave the debate to Obama 61 percent to 39.

In other words, as the Houston Chronicle put it yesterday, “Friday night’s debate in Oxford, Miss., was a split decision of sorts: Most pundits after the debate declared it a draw or gave McCain a slight edge, but viewers polled immediately after the debate said that Obama was the winner.” Or, as Eugene Robinson put it on Friday night’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, “You know, I thought it was a fascinating debate. And my sense is that our initial decision on who won on points is frequently, and dare I say, always wrong in terms of how people at home experienced the debate.”

Again: frequently, and dare I say, always wrong in terms of how people at home saw the debate. Which is, to say the least, a bit troubling. The discrepancy isn’t a matter, after all, of pundits’ analysis adding levels of nuance, context, and other layers of complexity to the people’s basic reactions to the political event they just witnessed; it’s a matter of those pundits’ analysis being, to a large extent, opposed to the opinions developed by the people themselves. While pundits are, of course, under no real obligation to reflect the opinion of the people—just as the people are under no real obligation to reflect the opinion of pundits—one would still hope that the synergy between the two fields of opinion would be organic. We’re all witnessing the same event, after all. So when conclusions differ, you have to wonder: Why the discrepancy? Why weren’t the pundits’ assessments of the debate more in line with those of their audiences—and vice versa?

The answer, I’d say, comes down to a discrepancy in the approaches themselves, to a difference between the standards the people and the press use to assess the candidates’ performances in the debates. In short, in general, in this case: The people were assessing the candidates according to the substance of their oratory. The pundits were assessing the candidates according to their style.

The debate was a tie, the pundits claimed, not because the policies the candidates discussed were equally clever or viable or what have you; it was a tie, rather, because neither candidate made a gaffe. And because neither candidate fired off any good, memorable one-liners. Indeed, the overall consensus among the pundits was that the debate, besides being a wash, winner-wise, was also…Dull. Wonky. Yawn-y. BO-ring. “Like having,” David Brooks told Charlie Rose, “a lifetime subscription to Congressional Quarterly.”

Well, first: Zing. But, second: Huh? Was David Brooks, Champion of Informed Opinion, really mocking a debate that was actually, say what else you will about it, relatively substantial? And for, you know, being substantial? Yes, it seems. And he wasn’t alone. “There were good exchanges but few big moments of the kind that can change a presidential race,” Dan Balz wrote in The Washington Post, his regret almost tangible. “This campaign has been so chock full of excitement…that the debate lost some of its normal most-important-moment-in-history sheen,” Gail Collins remarked, heaving a metaphorical sigh. And then there was Chris Matthews, who transcended all the dullness by avoiding talk of substance altogether. Here’s how he introduced his special post-debate episode of Hardball: “Good evening. My big question, my cold open: Why didn’t John McCain ever look at his opponent, Barack Obama, for an hour and a half? Let’s play hardball.”

Um, that’s his “big question,” his “cold open”? Not “how did the candidates’ proposals for helping the ailing economy—or their ideas about the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world—compare?,” but “Why did McCain ocularly snub Obama?”

It’s remarkable that the same media who’d spent the previous week—hey, the previous many months—building up the debate as Our Chance to Hear Directly from the Candidates would, with so little apparent self-consciousness, either decry or ignore the substance of the debate. And yet, decry and ignore they did. Brooks, making another appearing on Sunday’s episode of The Chris Matthews Show, could have redeemed himself for his initial opposition to wonkiness. Instead, he declared,

I longed for Ronald Reagan. You know, he didn’t know as much as these two guys demonstrated they know, but he would touch people in their values, tell them stories that they can remember. And neither of these guys did that.

Andrea Mitchell, sitting next to him, agreed:

Yeah. A prominent Republican said to me afterwards that it did meet the Ronald Reagan test: If I can imagine him as a commander-in-chief, or the John F. Kennedy test. He didn’t have the one-liners or the zingers, so there were no memorable moments—that’s where Barack Obama, I think, failed.

Mitchell wasn’t being ironic in her deeming of Obama’s failure-to-zing as an actual, and overall failure. Nor was Brooks. Nor was George Will, when, punditing with George Stephanapoulos on Friday night, he argued that, emphasis mine, “Barack Obama came out and looked comfortable and as though he belonged there. So, in a sense, the structure of the debate, indeed, the fact of the debate had to give a mild leg up to Barack Obama.” Nor were the other pundits who subscribed to the whole bite-makes-right line of debate-success logic, among them the editorial board of The New York Times, emphasis, again, mine:

Mr. McCain fumbled his way through the economic portion of the debate, while Mr. Obama seemed clear and confident. Mr. McCain was more fluent on foreign affairs, and scored points by repeatedly calling Mr. Obama naïve and inexperienced.

But Mr. McCain’s talk of experience too often made him sound like a tinny echo of the 20th century. At one point, he talked about how Ronald Reagan’s “S.D.I.” helped end the cold war. We suspect that few people under the age of 50 caught the reference. If he was reaching for Reagan’s affable style, he missed by a mile, clenching his teeth and sounding crotchety where Reagan was sunny and avuncular.

The message in all this is clear: Per the pundits, the style of delivery is much more important than what, in the end, is being delivered. And, to an extent, fair enough. The whole they’re-as-much-about-style-as-substance assumption when it comes to presidential debates is a truism, after all. The Famous Debate Moments in the History of Presidential Politics—and the Infamous—are rendered so, in general, not because they’ve provided bursts of brilliance, policy-wise, on the part of our executive aspirants, but rather because they’ve offered the moments of superficial serendipity—the barbs! the zingers! the chuckles! the subconscious facial tics!—that we’ve come to value in live television.

We generally don’t, as conduits of mass memory, recall the specifics of what was debated in the 1960 debate between Kennedy and Nixon; we remember, instead, Kennedy’s telegenic charm and Nixon’s five-o’clock shadow. Just as we remember Bush 41’s fixation on his wristwatch. And Al Gore’s frustrated sighs. And Ross Perot’s ears. Et cetera.

And when we do actually remember the substance of the presidential debates—words, words, words, and all that—we rarely remember facts and lines of logic so much as we recall zing-tastic barbs and turns of phrase (“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” “There you go again,” etc.). We focus on the dukes-out, knockout aspect of the debates. We focus, in other words, on Who Wins.

Yet the very notion that it’s the press’s job to declare a winner or a loser in each debate is flawed, not least because the assumption of either/or itself enforces a focus on the superficial. Winning and losing, after all, is the ultimate black-and-white issue. And inscription into the confines of the who-won-and-who-lost framework discourages—indeed, almost single-handedly prevents—nuanced assessments from journalists. (You could even argue that it discourages nuance from the candidates themselves, since they structure their own debate performances to fit the standards set by the media.)

On the one hand, the winner/loser setup of debates is convenient for journalists: It’s hard to analyze the substance of a debate in any intellectually honest way without also opening yourself up to accusations of partisanship. So the fact that journalists often focus on the “hard evidence” of facial cues and tone of voice and insults uttered and the like, giving themselves a bit of insulation from ideology-based accusations, is understandable. But that doesn’t make it any less unfortunate. Because that tendency encourages the media—and their audiences along with them—to ascribe undue value to the stylistic minutiae of each debate, rather than the substance of what’s being debated: the policy proposals and the revelations-of-candidates’-thought-processes and the like that together are, ostensibly, The Whole Point of the Debates in the First Place.

So here’s a radical idea, for Thursday night and beyond: Let’s stop thinking in terms of winning and losing when it comes to the debates. Since doing so serves, in the end, nobody. Let’s instead remember that, though the debates are media events on live TV, they’re much more than an amalgamation of visual cues and aural barbs: Each debate presents a rich text bursting with policy proposals and assumptions about government and other revelations just begging to be analyzed and parsed and explained.

An unprecedented number of people are paying attention to politics right now, and to the big political events—the convention speeches, the debates—in particular. They’re doing so not because they’re hoping to see a gaffe, or because they want to judge for themselves whether Candidate A has, indeed, snubbed Candidate B, but because they want to witness those texts firsthand. They’re paying attention, ultimately, because the stakes are high, and they want to know—yes, in dull, wonky, bo-ring detail—the direction each candidate wants to take the country. They want more than a boxing match played out in words and gestures; and they want, from the media, more than political sportscasting. They really do want substance. So let’s give it to them. If we do, everyone will win.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.