THE DEBATE….David Brooks, almost alone among pundits, thought last week’s ABC debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was great. But Ross Douthat doesn’t think Brooks’s praise went far enough:
I think it’s worth mounting a more vigorous defense of playing up issues like Obama’s relationship with Jeremiah Wright or Hillary’s fibs about Tuzla or even the essentially absurd flag-on-the-lapel controversy. I don’t think these topics matter just because they’re “symbolic”; I think they matter because they’re personal, because they tell us something (or seem to tell us something) about the psychology of the person we’re being asked to vote for.
….[W]hen we elect a new chief executive, we aren’t just electing to live with their policy positions. We’re deciding to live with their personalities — their sexual appetites and Daddy issues, their spouses and their friends, their religious beliefs and their psychodramas — for four or eight long years. (Or more, in our dynastic age, since we’ve been in Bushworld since 1988, and Clintonland since ’92.)
Personality, character, and judgment matter. No argument there. But the problem with Wednesday’s debate hinged on several things. First, there’s that parenthetical caveat: “(or seem to tell us something).” We should at least try to make a distinction between issues that really do illuminate character and those that only seem to — that have become media feeding frenizies even though they’re essentially trivial. Rather than simply tell us that these things are personal, I’d like to hear a defense of how they’re illuminating. I don’t think many of us felt very illuminated by the Charlie and George show last week.
Second, the biggest complaint about the debate was not that trivial issues were raised — this is America, land of the free and home of Matt Drudge, after all — but that they were raised for an excruciatingly relentless full hour before any other subject was so much as mentioned. A few minutes on Wright and a few minutes on Tuzla would have been fine. Those things are in the news and not everyone has followed them in detail. But 53 consecutive, soul-sucking minutes of this stuff? These people are running for president, not trying out for Survivor.
Third, and maybe most important, we only have to live with presidential psychodramas if we choose to live with presidential psychodramas. I don’t think anyone is arguing that every debate ought to be a wonky snoozefest, but when we keep raising the stakes in the race to elevate the inane to the level of a national obsession — when we turn debates into political versions of Access Hollywood — we’re actively supporting the decades-long trend to turn the White House into a national psychodrama. By complaining about this, rather than praising it, we’re suggesting that maybe this trend has already gone quite far enough.