The I-Hate-Debates Club

As part of our preparations for watching tonight’s second presidential candidates’ debate, we have a moral obligation to pay attention to at least one tirade about the exaggerated importance of presidential candidates’ debates, and why that is a perhaps a sign of the End Times. Today’s featured jeremiad is from TNR’s Alec MacGillis:

As you may have heard, the stakes for tonight’s debate are huge. Huge! How big are they? So big that one must resort to a child’s figure of speech: bigger than everything in the whole wide world.

MacGillis is not afraid to point fingers at specific promoters of the Hunger Games interpretation of debates, offering a choice cut of Andrew Sullivan rhetoric about the contempt for supporters shown by Obama in the first debate, along with Sullivan’s judgment that “he’s a goner” if he doesn’t turn it all around tonight. Alec’s sardonic commentary:

He’s a goner! Even if he turns in decent performances. Yes, we’ve watched him in office for nearly four years — through his response to the economic crisis and the legislative morass around the Affordable Care Act and the Bin Laden raid and the Arab Spring…but forget all that. It’s all riding on whether he can find that one Clintonesque moment with an unemployed accountant in the town-hall audience, or deliver that one stinging rebuke that encapsulates all that is wrong about Romney Version 7.0 and leaves him “obliterated” on the debate floor.

But others get their scolding as well, from big-foot journalists also looking for the “game-changing” moment to those participating in the hive mind of Twitter:

There have been endless stories about what the moderators do to get into shape for the events (Candy Crowley, tonight’s moderator, practices transcendental meditation, reports the New York Times) and about the stand-in opponents for the debate training sessions (John Kerry, the Times reported Monday, “has been spotted eating pizza and walking around the grounds of the resort with a thick binder filled with color-coded spacers”! ) Mark Halperin today touted his disclosure of the official Memorandum of Understanding for the debates with such portentousness that one might’ve thought it was the secret contingency plan for taking out the Chinese Navy.

No good sermon can avoid an altar call, and MacGillis does offer a plan for the redemption of the sinful:

We can try, each in our own way, to be slightly less hyperbolic and hyperventilating in our coverage. We can make fewer allusions to “cage matches.” We can spend more time in the immediate aftermath, when the spin is being shaped, weighing the substantive merits and tactical strengths of the argument rather than counting smiles or sips of water, the sort of theater criticism that has become all the easier now that the networks helpfully show the candidates on split screen. (Amid the million words spilled after the first debate, Ezra Klein was nearly alone in drilling deep into the actual transcript in the days following — which is especially remarkable given what a big impact the debate had on the course of the race.) And we can do more in the run-up to the final debate to prepare viewers for the arguments they are likely to witness — I would be far more willing to embrace the claim that debates are the most substantive moments in campaigns if I thought we were doing our utmost to put voters in a position of being able to understand and assess the substance that is being bandied about on their screens.

This is all good sound advice, and in my own small way I’ll try to remember MacGillis’ injunctions when writing about the debate tonight and tomorrow. But the truth is that the only way to contain the debate hype will be if the event is rather boring and neither candidate excels or fails. Another “big win” for either candidate and we’re back to the child’s language of making the debate bigger than the whole galaxy.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.