“Debate’ comes from the same word in English as “Batter” and that is what might be in store for us tonight. The candidates will duke it out in prime time. It has become the routine spectacle that we insist candidates endure for our viewing pleasure.
People love to quote Nixon V JFK and attribute JFK’s win to Nixon looking pale and wan and Kennedy being spright and clever. That is repeated like some gospel about debates. Watch it now, in black and white, and it feels so absolutely boring and ghastly that you have to ask how would anyone be able to measure the real impact. Could you see that close to notice a stubble?
There is little evidence that suggests debates makes any difference. Most of us are watching in the same way that we watch a football match. We are there to see our team win the contest. If our side wins, we cheer. If their side loses, we boo. We cannot resist the melodrama.
And though the election is one long job-interview, the skills you need to win in a debate are not exactly the skill set that maps on to the job description of a successful president. Being able to think on your feet and display wit and passion might win the interview but it is for a job so scripted, so constrained by tradition, and so formal that someone successful tonight in this venue might actually betray oneself as being unfit. This is more like a screen test than a test to rule the nation. Can you play the part, even the part set down for you in this drama called “Presidential Debate.”
But hey, that has never worried us. We enjoy the chance to watch these Goliaths go at each other. It says more about us than them. And it says that the presidency has been dumbed down to the level of screen shots, lighting angles, and performance pieces.
Do we think Biden is going to say anything radically new tonight? He will perform that same old slow, granddaddy reliable, indignant character that we know like Mr. Smith goes to Washington.
And the best character actor in a major political role, President Trump, will perform his usual stump speech-his usual cracks at fake news and Biden as the loony Lefty and how he alone can save the nation that he has done so good a job of making so much in need of saving.
So why watch? To be entertained? To be surprised? To be more informed about the candidates policies? None of these seem to make it compelling viewing. Then why watch?
Perhaps we watch for the same reason crowds love to watch executions. Or the sense of thrill that WWE wrestling brings some of us. We are voyeurs in a creepy way. And Trump promises more carnage and Biden promises to restore the soul of America. It is sounding like a Marvel Comic.
And at the end, will we be any the wiser? Will there be a winner and a loser? There are two more of these events so there HAS TO BE a story that comes out of it to create the audience buzz for the next one. It will be a poor night if they both do well, or they both bore the socks off of us.
A loser means that he can make a comeback. A winner means that they can get too cocky and self- assured. These labels have little to do with what is likely to happen tonight, but they just go to show that the debate is part of the media story manufacturing machine. All it does is give the commentariat a story to run from now till the next debate. And we might have a memorable line, or even a memorable moment.
To call it a debate, though, is almost to give it too much weight. This is a spectacle, pure and simple. Trump knows exactly how to extract that epic moment from it. Biden will endure it. But as for it having anything relevant to what will happen on November 3rd, let us not fool ourselves. In fact voting has started in so many places. The winner might even now be in the ballot boxes awaiting the tally, making the show tonight into the charade that it always is.
But is not going to stop us watching, so let’s enjoy.