There have been boring debates before, of course. Truth be told, probably only a fraction of these encounters, over the 32 years since general election debates became a fixture of presidential campaigns, actually delivered on their promise of great political drama. And even interesting debates are inevitably somewhat stilted affairs, as candidates cleave to their scripts and try to avoid blunders.
But the Belmont University showdown was something entirely different. Place the gravity of the moment next to the blah-blah-blah artifice of the rhetoric and overall insubstantiality of the evening, and this is what you get: The worst presidential debate ever.
The day after leaves behind a puzzle: How the hell did candidates manage to be so timid and uninspiring at a time when American troops are in two problematic wars, the world financial markets are in scary free fall and the Dow has lost 1,400 points since Oct. 1? This is a moment history rarely sees — and both men blew it.
It was an odd reversal of the usual optics of power. Ordinarily, the national stage can take even life-size pols such as Michael Dukakis and imbue them with an outsize aura.
Tuesday's debate was a look through the wrong end of the telescope: Men with fascinating biographies seemed conventional. The promise both men once offered of a new, less contrived and more creative brand of politics was a distant memory.
An evening this bad is not the result of just an off night by the candidates. It can flow only from a confluence of circumstances.
Here is our appraisal of the factors behind the most disappointing presidential debate ever.
The presidential debate commission’s rules are a scandal.
It would be hard to cook up a duller way of debating than the one we witnessed last night. The commission allowed the cautious handlers of the presidential campaigns to negotiate a format designed to limit improvisation, intellectual engagement and truth-telling.
The rules were so constraining, it raises the question: Why even put a moderator in the chair? Tom Brokaw threw up his hands from the outset, apologizing for the constraints he was under, which didn’t allow him to press on evasive answers or encourage a promising exchange. Too bad he couldn’t have just defied the commission altogether. He should have tossed out the script and said, "This moment is too important to allow misinformation to go unchallenged and serious issues to be ignored."
It’s not Brokaw’s fault. Or Jim Lehrer’s or Gwen Ifill’s. The problem is the commission that has been invested with pseudo-constitutional status to run the debates but, in fact, weakly defers to candidates and clings to antiquated formats. No serious candidate would skip a debate. So the commission should use its leverage to insist that the debates are interesting to voters, rather than safe for candidates. Allow moderators to be more aggressive — and to call out candidates for lame answers — and then allow the candidates to go at it over the issues that matter most without time constraints.
The television ratings show voters want to hear from the candidates and are willing to sit through 90 minutes of boredom to get a glimpse of the two men in one arena. Imagine what would happen if these events were actually exciting and informative.
The candidates are stumped.
When Sarah Palin dodged questions with scripted messages and folksy one-liners in her debate against Joe Biden her nonresponsiveness was often glaringly obvious.
With McCain and Obama, you have to print out the transcript and read carefully to fully appreciate howthey glided past sharp questions. Because both have gone through dozens of such encounters over the past couple of years, and because Obama in particular is an exceptionally fluent speaker, their answers can sound plausible — even when the fog machine is going full blast.
It is hard to imagine a more relevant question for the moment than the evening’s first, when an audience member asked for “the fastest, most positive solution” to help older people, whose economic standing is most imperiled by the crash in home values and markets.
To this specific question, Obama offered a generic answer about the perils of excessive deregulation, the need for health care and the scandal of junketeering executives at American International Group, one of the companies bailed out by the government.
McCain was at first no more responsive as he called for energy independence and low taxes. When he pivoted to a specific answer, it was with a breathtakingly ambitious idea to “order the secretary of the Treasury to immediately buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America” and renegotiate the terms so that people have to move. But the actual details of this unprecedented intervention — the cost, logistics and philosophical rationale for protecting people from unwise purchases — were murky. And, amazingly, neither McCain nor Obama, nor Brokaw, returned to the subject.
The obvious conclusion is that everyone was winging it, hoping to get out of the evening alive even though (like most Americans) they are baffled about both the causes of and the cures for this fast-moving crisis.
The fog was not confined to the financial crisis. It also covered the debate over Iraq, which was almost entirely backward-looking.
There was no independent on the stage.
Where is this election’s Ross Perot? In 1992 (and much less so in 1996), the eccentric billionaire’s presence at the debates helped give the proceedings a kind of cracker barrel candor.
An independent on the stage helps highlight — and, with luck — temper the major-party nominees’ usual instinct to pander or avoid telling hard truths about themselves.
Brokaw provided the candidates a clear opportunity when he asked about consumers getting drunk on easy credit.
But neither candidate took him up on the invitation. Obama’s message was about the need for more regulation to protect investors and McCain gave a paean to the inherent greatness of Americans.
But one big reason for the crisis is that ordinary Americans bought cars, houses and other things they simply could not afford. They entered into mortgages they knew could be too good to be true: no money down, low payments for the first few years.
It is hard to imagine any outcome that does not involve significant sacrifice and more economic self-discipline for ordinary Americans. An independent candidate would have increased the likeliness that someone would have thrown the flag on these evasions.
Both Obama and McCain were once cult-of-personality candidates, running on their inspirational personal biographies and reformist profiles more than on their policy records.
At least in this format, unfortunately, neither of them had especially appealing personalities. The combination of the two, as at the first debate in Mississippi, gave the evening a tense mood that contributed to the feeling of time hanging heavy.
McCain’s contribution to the peevish tone was more obvious, as when he referred to Obama as “that one.”
Obama was, as ever, cooler and more poised. As the younger man — trying to make history as the first African-American president — he surely feels a special imperative to convey calm and reassurance.
He does it so well, however, that he did not do much to convey what he is passionate about. Neither man showed much humor. Self-deprecation seems not t come naturally to either one. The I-love-me quotient has rarely been higher in one of these debates.
It was a stark contrast to the personality and even warmth that both Biden and Palin showed at last week’s St. Louis encounter.
Obama and McCain both are men with large life stories, asking to lead the country at a large moment. With one more debate to go, could someone turn the telescope around?