Going into tonight's debate in Philadelphia, the two millionth one we've had so far this primary season, I had one significant worry: that the bulk of the time would be taken up with process questions and media obsessions, and that issues of import would end up getting sidelined. As it turns out, I was depressingly, distressingly correct. In fact, there were times when tonight's debate ventured into territory so utterly asinine that I could scarcely believe what I was witnessing.
Twas not until the nine-o'clock hour drew nigh that a single issue-oriented question was asked. The entire first hour was dedicated to silly campaign queries and scandals both du jour and d'antan. Before a single question was posed about the War in Iraq or the economy was asked, the viewing audience had to wade through the following:
Any chance at a "Dream Ticket?"
"Do you think your opponent stands a chance against McCain?"
"What about Reverend Wright?"
"Wait. I have an even stupider question about Reverend Wright."
"Seriously. Who were you fooling with that Bosnia shizz?"
"Hey, Hussein! Why no American flag lapel pin?"
"Hey, Sean Hannity wanted me to ask you something, Barack! I got a question on the Weather Underground! Maybe later we'll talk about the Symbionese Liberation Army!"
All of these questions have been beaten to a pulp, grim death. And neither candidate really had anything new to add to the responses they've already offered time and time again. It was as if ABC News, left out of the twenty-four hour news cycle that spawned these zombo-droid queries, needed to get in their licks on the same matters, too, just so they could feel like they'd played a part in every last one of the primary season's glittering inanities.
Why in the world George Stephanopoulos felt compelled to ask Barack Obama if Reverend Wright "loved America" after he had already been made to give another recitation of his repudiation of Wright's remarks is a question that simply defies the imagination. What sort of sensible answer can be given to that question? It would require astral projection to properly gauge another man's emotional state. And if you want to ask Hillary Clinton to account for the odd contortions she advanced on the matter of her Bosnia recollections, just sack up and ask. Don't hide behind the additional, pointless cruelty of a random voter's scoldings that Clinton lost their vote. What a wholly superfluous pile on!
And the flag lapel pin question came with this admonishment from Charles Gibson: "It keeps coming up, again and again." Well, no shit, Charlie! It keeps "coming up, again and again" because the media resolutely refuses to obtain the necessary courage to stop doing so.
Gibson and Stephanopoulos did deign to squeeze in a few questions of substance, on the Iraq War, taxes, Iran's nuclear ambitions, gun control, and energy independence. But it was quite clear that the moderators could have cared less about the content of the candidate's responses. Instead, they concerned themselves with pinning Obama and Clinton down on a series of absurd "pledges," for the purpose, no doubt, of providing the "gotcha" questions of tomorrow.
To their credit, Clinton and Obama were thoughtful enough to broach the topic of the housing market. Good thing! It didn't occur to the moderators to ask!
The string of issue-oriented questions didn't last long. The debate concluded with a question on how the candidates would "use" George W. Bush in the future. (As a hat-rack, maybe?) And the invitation to make a closing statement required each candidate to imagine how they would win the support of a superdelegate. Process nonsense to the end.
Throughout the night, ABC returned from commercials with bumpers that featured random quotes from the Constitution, because something, apparently, needed to substitute for gravitas.
Like I said, there have been several thousand of these debates. Most, I've watched. Many, I've covered or liveblogged. A few, I have sat very still, and hoped for the sweet release that only the icy hand of death can provide. Tonight was the first time I would have dearly loved to see Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama team up and turn the tables on their interrogators.
Before ABC signed off for the evening, Gibson heard a reaction from the audience and observed, "The crowd is turning on me."
If only they'd done so sooner.