We had two nights, two debates, two hours each, 20 candidates and the resplendence of NBC's Charles Davis Todd, and all anybody will remember are two things. One, Julian Castro humiliating Beto O'Rourke like a professor torturing the guy in the seminar who hasn't done the reading and tries to bluff his way through the discussion. Two, Kamala Harris showing Joe Biden that Barack Obama can't protect him anymore.
Cable news' postgame analysis fell into its predictable pattern. That meant the political version of collar-strangled NFL steakheads running through which candidate got most JACKED UP and which moment made them say, C'MON, MAN—which, in Biden's case, is a two-fer. But it makes you wonder: Are we really going to do this shit again?
What the debate proved most of all, beyond any narrow political point about winners and losers, is that the novelty-obsessed media environment that greased the path for Donald Trump's stumble into the White House hasn't changed. No one has learned any lessons, and the result is a process that still sucks as TV and sucks as politics.
Presidential debates fail as entertainment products for the same reasons as the Academy Awards. It's a lot of insincerity and teeth-flashing; the audience really only watches for when something or someone screws up. That's a low bar, and the history of "iconic" debate moments lowers it to ankle height. There's an entire party that has slapped one knee down to a nub after 39 years of hooting and hollering over Ronald Reagan saying, "There you go again." (No wonder Amy Klobuchar said "all foam and no beer" as if preparing for the applause floodgates to burst.)
But these debates don't work as a way to inform voters either, even less so when the stage runneth over with candidates. Anyone who saw the first day of O'Rourke's campaign knew that he'd be short on answers and long on replies; no one following the race closely would have been shocked at Biden not being able to handle being attacked by a black woman.
The convenient TV media rationale is that these debates show people who don't follow the news how these candidates will handle these moments and who they are (translation: You wouldn't find out if they're good at insulting people next to them and making them uncomfortable). But if 2016 showed us anything, it's that being good at television is not the same thing as being qualified for the presidency.
It's easy to be indifferent rather than angry at the inadequacy of the process of picking a leader. It's always been this way and shows no signs of stopping. But the point is that these circumstances are, as with Biden's 1970s position on integration, a series of choices, and we make the wrong ones in seeming perpetuity because we disguise them as necessities.
Phrases like "sucked up all the oxygen" and "need to break through," are presented as axioms, but actually they're dodges, ways of discussing the score of the game rather than questions of whether it's worth playing. The need to break through what? Who put it there? Why is there such a limited amount of oxygen? Could all these bad metaphors come from the fact that you've put all the candidates in a big terrarium and shaken it until they fight?
The depressing refrain, naturally, is that these conditions are the products of corporate media, in front of which most of us are powerless. But the Democratic Party isn't; it has leverage. Whoever is making what choices, they are self-evidently the wrong ones when we end up with Chuck Todd practically firing finger guns at the candidates and going, "You: Biggest threat to America. One word. Go."
Who knows what a different format would look like, but in a system when the most prominent talkers get maybe eight minutes fragmented over 120, almost anything else would do. It wouldn't have to be that much more substantive; just cutting the time wasted by candidates like Eric Swalwell proving they have what it takes to interrupt other world leaders would avoid crosstalk that ends with someone saying something like, "America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we're going to put food on their table."
Why the Democratic Party settles for this is obvious. Things are easy when time limits keep the policies vague and the zingers flowing. It conserves material for later, allowing even the best candidates to coast on the same prefab exhortations. It's also an environment in which Trump can sound less than totally demented.
That our debate formats remain so aggressively superficial is an insult to the last three years, where a hundred bills of "we'll get to this festering decades-long crisis later" came due all at once. (This time, climate change got 15 minutes out of 240. By 2024, maybe we can give it 21.) The problem won't abate as candidates start dropping out. Fewer people will mean more time for more subjects, and the discussion of each will last only a bit longer than the duration of an agonizingly unsuppressed church fart.
Any system that Donald Trump can worm his way through with D-list insults and 120 seconds of attempted memorization should be fumigated and then burned. The fact that it remains intact speaks to the extreme laziness and boundless cynicism of that system's architects, who evidently don't mind that the worst people can win the game they've created. Why should they care? They just built this shitheap. It's the rest of us who have to live in it.
Jeb Lund is a former political columnist for the Guardian and Rolling Stone. He has a podcast about Hallmark original movies.