I watched Friday night’s “debate”. I hadn’t planned to, but I did. What I saw was actually better than I’d expected: a set of core questions that each candidate had two minutes of uninterrupted time to address — and they generally did address the questions at hand, despite not having known in advance what they would be (though none were real surprises), and time with each question to discuss and rebut. It was almost like a proper debate, certainly more so than others in recent years.
I was very surprised by Senator McCain’s manner. Senator Obama came across as confident, secure, and presidential, while Senator McCain just appeared to be lame, not at all in control and not specific enough in his answers. I was puzzled.
Then I read James Hanley’s analysis of what purpose the debates serve (written Friday morning, but I hadn’t had time to read it and it sat in a browser tab until Saturday), and he hits the problem exactly with this:
That stuff just doesn’t give you any idea who would be a more capable president, so it doesn’t help anyone make an informed decision.
And of course the mass media almost solely focuses on who “won” and who “lost” the debates, treating them as wholly self-contests, with little regard for what they really reveal—if anything—about a candidate’s presidential qualifications. And winning is a wholly relative term, based on how the candidates are expected to perform. You don’t have to do well to win, you just have to do better than expected, which means that if you’re expected to be a clueless dolt, you can win just by not misprouncing “nucular” too badly. That’s why we get the candidates’ campaigns doing their best to create very low expectations.
Well, yes, of course. That’s it. High school debate teams “win” or “lose” their debates on how they’ve put together and conducted their arguments, and they are assigned different sides of an issue to debate. In those debates, the participants score points, and we tally them... but that’s not what these debates are supposed to be about.
These are supposed to be telling us where the candidates stand on the issues of the day, and giving them a chance to challenge each other’s stand right there in front of us. And, in fact, this debate did much more of that than most others have done.
And yet as soon as it was over, I started seeing things pop up in the news media and in the blogs... telling us who “won” on each question, and overall. But it’s not a question of winning and losing; it’s a question of giving you and me the information we need in order to choose between them in the election. Senator Obama might have appeared more in control of the question about the economy, but if you don’t agree with his plan, that’s what matters. Senator McCain may have succeeded in beating Senator Obama up for being willing to “sit across the table” from Iranian President Ahmadinejad, saying that doing so “legitimizes” everything the latter has said... but if you think that’s a ridiculous bucket of hog-spittle, has he “won” that question?
If we really want informed voters, both the voters and the news media have to stop trying to bring everything down to a check mark in one column or another. It’s not black and white, it’s not sound bites, it’s not a zero-sum game. It’s a complex set of issues, and we have to think about them. And the media have to help get us the information we really need to think about.
Laugh about it, shout about it,
When you’ve got to choose;
Every way you look at it, you lose.
— Paul Simon, “Mrs Robinson”
 Well, the election is a zero-sum game, of course. But the issues, and the candidates’ and voters’ views on them aren’t.