Sunday, September 28, 2008

I mixted you a metafor

Judging by what America's Newspapers chose to prioritize, a presidential debate is either:

* Nuclear war
* Boxing match
* Horse race
* Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire
* Battlefield blunder
* Or ... OK, another boxing match. But if we already know it's a boxing match, how could "come out swinging" be a competent ayems hed for an event that ended around 10:30p Eastern?

The problem is deeper than a few ineptly chosen metaphors. One of the truly sound observations in Orwell's oft-reviled "Politics and the English Language" is that if two critics come to opposite metaphoric conclusions (one says the writing is alive, the other bemoans its deadness), they're probably talking about some feature that has no corresponding presence in the real world: there may be some characteristic that makes writing lively, but one or both of these folks wouldn't recognize it if it jumped up and bit 'em.

That's what seems to be happening with debate coverage. Evidently, we all agree there's something important going on, but we don't seem to agree on what it is, or why it's important, or whether debate discourse is different from attack-ad discourse, or whether "debates" really are just another form of televised sporting event.

Some of this appears to be design-driven, and the "Fast and furious" package is an example. Somebody at the Strib heard that "foreign policy" went with "first presidential debate" (hence the kicker), but it evidently wasn't the person who chose the quotes -- neither of which has squat to do with "foreign policy." And "fast and furious start" ... to what? The debate? (Hard to believe the hed writer watched it.) The all-important stretch run? (Uh, yeah.)

I think the core problem is that we're making a particular kind of event into something it's not. If we're judging debates by whether the candidates came out swinging, or whether someone landed the knockout blow, we're looking for the wrong stuff. That sector of political discourse is quite thoroughly covered by advertising and by whatever the bush-league tacticians on the talk shows think they read on the NYT and Post op-ed pages. A debate (so called) is a chance to watch candidates think out loud, or to watch what they recite in lieu of thinking.

That means we need to stop thinking of these things as centerpieces or centers of visual interest. Debates don't do that. They're visually boring and should be.* They're suited to long chunks of text, unmediated by the sort of instant experts who hang around presentation desks and editorial pages. When we summarize, we're going to get this:

Candidates' clearest difference is on Iraq policy

which, to the extent it's true, was self-evident before the event, but it misses the stuff in the debate that was geniunely interesting. ZOMG! Did you know we have one candidate who has a rough idea of how the Iranian political system works and one who doesn't?** One who understands what an "existential threat" is and one who thinks Hugo Chavez is one? One camp that has some actual claim to the realist ideal and one that occupies an interesting space that's half cloudcuckooland,*** half "Nightmare on Elm Street"?

We do have a few weeks to try to get this one right, so let's. The quadrennial candidate encounters might not technically be debates, but they aren't Ginormous Monster Truck Death Wrestling Cage Showdowns, either. Stop trying to make them centerpieces. Try making them chances to watch how candidates use political language in public.

* Special cluelessness prize to the "Fighting words" designer, who actually managed to make these two candidates the same height!
** Not a reference to his pronounciation -- though given the importance in right-wing discourse of demonizing Ahmadinejad, you'd think someone would have paid attention to this in warmups.
*** Speaking of which, let me introduce a political columnist I hadn't run across until today: David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register. Check him out! You won't be disappointed!

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