To watch a debate be, or not watch, etc.

Was in a slightly sharp mood this morning over here on ILX regarding the question of needing to watch last night’s debate between Obama and Clinton — which, like all the other debates, and like pretty much every high level debate since 1992 I haven’t watched at all, quite honestly. In the brief give-and-take there were some good responses from all sides, but the best, from Dimension 5ive, more clearly summed up the source of my unease than I could:

I think a better argument to be made is that DEBATING HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE JOB OF BEING PRESIDENT. Televised persona is infinitely more important to the “job” of being president than any kind of spirited mediated arguing and nitpicking.

This distinction strikes me as sound. In that television and tools of mass communication exist and are going to be used, that there needs to be a televised persona — or a media persona if you prefer — is obvious, and ever since the Kennedy/Nixon debates (or perhaps more accurately the perceived impact of those debates upon watchers, as compared to simply listeners), much time and care has been spent on that persona by every high-profile candidate, ranging from the massively successful to the crash-and-burn. That I’m not a TV watcher much is just who I am at present, and I make no apology at all for that, but it’d be foolish of me to deny the place of this persona in the process, perhaps even more especially in the era of YouTube — as I was reminded elsewhere the other day, this will be the first presidential election where YouTube and similar sites will have a core role, and it’s precisely because we won’t know that impact of it yet that we’re all waiting to see what exactly will happen.

So with this being the case, why my general uninterest in debates for all these years? Part of it can be ascribed my general preferences — being registered without a party, there’s been little chance for me to vote directly in party primaries, while in general terms I’ve yet to meet the GOP candidate who I’ve wanted to vote for based on the party’s general platform (most especially thanks to the continued kowtowing to the religious right, even if more in word than in deed) — a debate’s not going to clear that up any further, though it’ll be interesting to see just how far McCain leverages the ‘maverick’ image to his personal advantage, as opposed to his party’s.

Another part of my uninterest, as I mentioned on the thread linked, is that there’s any number of ways one can get a sense of a candidate’s position — in much more detail — than a debate performance, but one can even get that aspect via a debate transcript if one likes. Quite obviously for many people it is helpful and convenient, but it’s not like watching a debate is the only way to find out what a candidate thinks and does, or how they react to charges and differences across the political aisle, or on the same side of it.

And part of it is something I’ve already referenced — it’s a performance, it’s not necessarily reflective at all of how a candidate will actually act in any given situation. The theater around the debates — a clash of ideologies in the general debates, a potential narcissism of small differences in the primaries — obscures everything that goes on in terms of actual decisions, negotiations, discussions internal and external to the candidate’s pool of advisers and resources. How we see a candidate answering a question under klieg lights to a nationwide audience in the millions with a potentially angry opponent two feet away — especially if it’s a question that may be utterly irrelevant to what a president actually does (thus in part D5′s note about part of the inflated mystique of the debates being that they are ‘mediated’ — seems like the person most everyone hated in this debate was Tim Russert) is not the same as considering the actions of that candidate, now president, up late at a conference table with five or six close associates facing a tough legislative situation, discussing the best possible new justice for the Supreme Court or responding to a national emergency. That the mass voting audience hopes one reflects the other is understandable, but they are still not the same.

Deej, in his positive comment about the debates, rightly notes this: “i really enjoy watching these tho i have no illusions about ‘what they mean’ or whether they in some way impact the person’s ability to be a president.” A perfectly sensible conclusion! And others speak about how in comparison to recent years they sense much more of an elevated level of discussion this year, which is also good to hear. Still, to me it’s all a distraction that I’m not all that interested in, and if I rubbed feathers the wrong way by openly kvetching about it, my apologies, though I don’t think my take — especially after this endless campaign season — is all that surprising!

If, as is likely but hardly yet set in stone, Obama rolls to a commanding enough win in Ohio and Texas next week to put the idea of a brokered convention to bed, then one of the side benefits is that we’re not going to see any other mass level debate until late September or early October. A lot can happen in that time, and in fact one interesting thing that *will* likely happen is that there will be running debates as such on the Senate floor — laws are there to be introduced, debated and voted on, and all the candidates currently serve their states there, whatever higher prize they might be aiming at. These debates aren’t going to be moderated by TV hosts, will have their own set of rules, will actually be part of the process of the government as opposed to hypotheticals or speculation. I’d almost say we’d all want to keep an eye on those more in the meantime — if, or as, they happen. We’ll all yet see.

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