The headline on the Drudge Report said it all. In the aftermath of the second presidential debate, the question was not who won or lost, but how many of us managed to stick with it until the end.
I won’t tell if you don’t.
Politico called it the worst debate ever. I can’t disagree. Frankly, I haven’t seen one that even came close. Two substantial men, and by the end of it (OK, close to the end), everyone watching with me in the hotel lobby was wondering how either of these guys managed to win his party’s nomination. And yes, whether there might be a rerun of the Red Sox game from the night before on another station.
There are all kinds of reasons why it was so bad. The format was awful; it was supposed to look like an open, informal discussion, but of course, it was anything but. It wasn’t that the questions were bad, but most of them never got answered, and the moderator had no authority to push when they didn’t, to follow up on the stock answers, to turn it into what it was supposed to be. Tom Brokaw is a very smart guy, but he was functioning not as a moderator but as a prop, an emcee, not a questioner. A total waste, carefully negotiated by the representatives of both candidates. It wasn’t simply a matter of not trusting Tom Brokaw. They didn’t trust their own candidates.
The set was awful, making the candidates seem little and silly and phony, even as they run for the most powerful office in the land, at a critical point in history. Not an easy thing to do, given the stakes, but there it was. I’ve seen student council debates with more gravity to them.
The candidates, both of them, were also pretty awful, not because they said anything wrong, but because (with the exception of McCain’s briefly mentioned mortgage proposal), neither of them said anything that anyone who’s been paying attention to the campaign hasn’t heard about 20 times already.
You know it’s bad when the biggest moment of the night is John McCain calling Barack Obama “that one.” Not exactly a “you’re no Jack Kennedy” moment.
Politically speaking, Obama won.
He didn’t win because of anything he said or did, or because of anything McCain said or did. He didn’t win because of his policy positions or his passion, or because of McCain’s failings in those areas. He won because he was ahead going in, and it was one of those debates where everyone is bound to come out supporting the same person they did going in. Certainly, nothing that happened in Nashville was going to move an Obama person into McCain’s camp, or vice versa. As for the shrinking pool of undecided voters, the danger of a debate like Tuesday night’s is that they might decide — to not vote at all.
In theory, debates are an excellent idea. In theory, all of us who care about politics, want to be informed voters and believe in this messy but miraculous democracy of ours, feel like we should watch. But we won’t keep feeling that way if they keep being this bad. The moderator needs to throw away the rule book: What are the candidates going to do, refuse to answer? And the candidates need to do more than give us the stock lines they trot out every day.
Interest has been running high in politics since early in the primary season. There were all kinds of reasons to expect that this election would be one of the great ones: important issues on the table, history being made on both sides, the first African-American nominee, the first time a woman has been on the Republican ticket. And then, on top of all that, an economic meltdown playing out in real time. Virtually everyone predicted that the contest would be tough, hard fought, maybe even very nasty.
The one thing none of us predicted is what happened Tuesday night. Terminal boredom.
The onus is now on McCain. Something needs to happen or he’s going to be heading back to the Senate. Next week’s debate could be his last chance.
If people tune in, that is. Go Red Sox.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for FOXNews.com.