Hillary Clinton
Credit: Lorie Shaull/Flickr

I am incredibly bored by every attempt to re-litigate the 2000 campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore, especially efforts to blame the media. I might agree. I might disagree. Mostly, I don’t want to think about it. I do remember one thing that’s worth mentioning, though, since we’ll all see the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton tonight. I recall cringing during the first debate between Gore and Bush because Bush was being blown out so badly that I had the urge to intervene on his behalf and stop the pummeling he was taking. The problem was, I was judging the debate by metrics that mattered to me, like whether Bush could demonstrate even a rudimentary preparedness for the job. And, he couldn’t. He was flagrantly uninformed, inarticulate, and basically incapable of having an intelligent conversation on any issue that was raised. That Al Gore sighed a lot while enduring the idiocy coming from Bush’s side of the stage was more than understandable, even if I thought he should make an effort to look a little less exasperated.

The important point, though, is that it didn’t matter whether the media agreed with me (as some initially did) that Gore had floored Bush repeatedly in the debate, or if they focused on their best guesses of how the public would react to Gore’s impatience. All that mattered is what the audience actually thought.

And, yes, I’ll acknowledge that the post-debate coverage mattered because a lot more people were exposed to the “analysis” than actually watched the debate for themselves. But the analysis was mixed. In the end, Bush probably came out the winner because the American people, on balance, decided he was the winner.

Even though I learned my lesson from that experience, I still was surprised that McCain wasn’t hurt worse by Sarah Palin’s bizarre debate performance against Joe Biden.

This isn’t to say that Donald Trump will win tonight’s debate. It’s only to point out that acting in a totally unconventional manner and demonstrating complete cluelessness won’t necessarily hurt him. We might almost feel sorry for him only to discover that he’s jumped ahead in the polls.

On the other hand, we might think he’s met the standard for a presidential debate better than we ever expected, only to discover that people were really offended by the way he waved his hands.

I have no idea how to win a presidential debate. I only know that it isn’t decided by the folks at Ted Cruz’s American Whig Cliosophic Society.

As soon as the debate ends, everyone will have an opinion about who won and how much it might matter. You can probably go to sleep without listening to them. The polls will do a better job than they will in answering those questions.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com