Did you think the second presidential debate was too nasty, that it was sad to see the two lead actors portray such a polarized image of American politics? The third performer up on the stage, moderator Candy Crowley, didn’t think so.
“They were talking to their bases who want to see them stand up to each other,” Crowley said on CNN after the debate. “They were so good being at each other’s face, and I thought this was a debate, so I let it go. … It was so good.”
The woman with the only front row seat didn’t seem to be interested in the content of the candidates’ arguments, much less their logical coherence. She cared about the show. And as long as they were at each other’s face, “it was so good.”
A long-time TV professional, who has made television her life, naturally judges the debate by the same criteria she would judge any television show. And appropriately so, since the debate is above all television entertainment.
That’s why when debate season roles around I always turn to TV critics like, TV the New York Times’ David Carr. What struck Carr most about the first debate was not anything about the content. It was the extraordinary size of the audience -- over 70 million -- “breaking a 32-year-old record in viewership.” (And there was every likelihood that the second debate would score even higher.) Only the Superbowl gained more viewers -- a TV show where we don’t merely hope, but know with certainty, that the performers will be at each other’s face.
“Credit live event television,” Carr wrote, “the last remaining civic common in an atomized world. While ratings for almost everything on television have sunk, big spectacles that hold some promise of spontaneity -- N.F.L. games, the Olympics and various singing competitions -- continue to thrive.” And, of course, so do the presidential debates, as long as the race is close enough that the big prize is at stake.
Carr quotes Jeff Zucker, former chief executive of NBC Universal: “Television is about drama, whether it is the Olympics, the Super Bowl, or ‘Homeland,’ and these debates have provided incredibly great drama. It just proves the adage that if you put on a good show, and both of these debates have been very good television, the audiences are going to be there.”
Carr and Zucker didn’t say it, but they know as well as Candy Crowley what makes great drama that draws big audiences: conflict, characters standing up to each other and being at each other’s faces.
Crowley and Carr were merely two of the thousands of journalists and commentators, not only on TV but in every news medium, who all read from the same prescribed text: It’s fundamentally about performance. Obama lost the first debate because of his poor performance. In fact he lost most because of his performance when he wasn’t speaking. So the content of his words could not have played much role at all in his loss.
That’s why everyone was focused on Obama’s performance in the second debate. And he played it pitch perfect. When Romney spoke, Obama showed no scorn or disinterest or boredom. He was all ears, apparently paying attention with the appropriately neutral face. But when it was his turn to speak, he was at Romney’s face -- certainly not all the time, but enough to make it the biggest news event of the night.
Romney gave as good as he got, though -- letting the New York Times website headline (happily, I trust), “Rivals Bring Bare Fists to Rematch.”
Media professionals don’t really care who won, as long as they get a good conflict-packed show. Having one candidate declared the surprise, clear-cut winner, as in the first debate, is a bonus; it makes the show even better.
Most voters will agree it was a good debate. It offered enough conflict to create a good drama, which is always entertaining.
But the voters care about more than just production values and being entertained. They have a much more urgent question than “Was it a good show?” As Maureen Dowd put it, “Every election has the same narrative: Can the strong father protect the house from invaders?” That’s the question the voters ask about each candidate -- consciously or unconsciously -- as they watch the two perform.
That’s bound to be the crucial question in a nation whose political life is shaped so much by the myth of homeland insecurity -- a myth that says invaders are always outside, threatening to burst through the door and destroy us if our leaders don’t have fists strong enough to keep them out.
There’s no common agreement about who the invaders are. Indeed, one way to understand American political discourse is to see it as a debate about the name of the truly threatening invader. Is it the rich who thrive in an unregulated, runaway, overly free market? Or is it the government, imposing too much taxation and too much regulation? Or perhaps the terrorists? Or maybe it doesn’t matter so much who, exactly, the invaders are.
The crucial question is which candidate is strong enough to keep out the invaders, whoever they may be.
Oh, perhaps you thought the crucial question had something to do with the economy, since you’ve been told that about a zillion times. Consider this:
In CNN’s instant (but “scientific”) poll of second debate watchers, well over 55% said Romney would be the better president when it comes to boosting the economy and lowering the debate. But the same group awarded Obama a victory in the debate by the sizeable margin of 46% to 39%.
Obama lost the first debate, the media consensus agrees, because he simply did not look strong enough to protect the house. In the second debate, he was warned, he had either to look strong enough or to expect defeat on Election Day. He certainly got the message, proved himself up to the task, and took home the blue ribbon.
But Romney did a creditable job of performing the role of strong father, too. So he’s not out of the race by any means. It will continue to be close unless one or the other candidate shows a moment of major weakness.
And our democracy will continue to be an entertaining show, as the people try to escape from their insecurity, until enough voters start asking a new question: Which candidate is wise enough to design a house that’s a better place for all of us to live in?