For years, we have expected presidential debates to be mostly serious affairs, so much so that many found them boring. Two or more candidates would take to a stage and be questioned on policy issues by some network political wonk and many would tune out after only a few minutes. Well after last nights democratic debate in Pennsylvania, those days can now be viewed as the good old’ days.
What we saw last night was nothing short of a seismic shift in the way network televised debates will be presented. Instead of a 90 minute break from the normal nonsensical campaign bantering of surrogates and the infantile back-and-forth silliness we all have come to expect, we got more of just that sort of thing in this debate. Thanks to Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, discussion of policy and real issues, like the economy, Iraq, healthcare and anything else that matters to people’s lives, took a back seat and were pushed aside.
The first question should have given us an insight into what was coming. Charlie Gibson, with his glasses perched on his nose so as to appear like the candidates fourth grade history teacher, asked if they would put the other on the ticket as a running mate. But he didn’t specify who the question was for, so as the two senators paused in an attempt to be polite to one another Gibson gave a snarky “Don’t all talk at once” type jibe. Either Gibson choked on the very first question, or he was hoping this would happen so he could put them both down right off the bat. It was ridiculously awkward moment, but as the next 50 minutes would reveal, it was just the type of table setter he was looking for.
The first six questions, encompassing nearly the entire first half of the debate, was completely devoid of policy issues or anything else one would expect to find in a debate. Instead we got regurgitated “gotchas” that have all been discussed and answered over and over for weeks.
There was an obvious plan to what ABC wanted out of this debate. They were going to corner Obama and watch as Clinton slapped away, like an episode of Jerry Springer. For example, the moderators used a taped question from a Pennsylvanian about Obama and his lack of a flag lapel pin, as if that were of any consequence to why I can’t afford to fuel my car. Of course no one bothered to point out that Hillary Clinton was also not wearing a pin, because that just wouldn’t have fit the script. It was painfully pointless and depressingly hard to watch.
But it will be up to bloggers and newspapers to point this out. The television media will never criticize one of their own as soon they will also be called on to perform such a task. Will this new “reality television” style of political debates be what the future holds? Let’s all hope not.