11/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Debate Was The Politico Watching?

Jim VandeHei and John Harris of The Politico have gone and decreed last night's debate "The worst debate ever." In the first place, on this regard, they are hopelessly and ridiculously wrong.

But more to the point, what debate were they even watching? Last night's debate was an unexpected, and appreciated, deviation from the destination that one might have thought the affair was heading, had one spent even five minutes watching the news yesterday. For two days, the airwaves had bloomed with a toxic negativity -- filled with William Ayers rants, Keating Five docudramas, and snarling, Secret Service scrutinized mobs on the stump. For close to forty-eight hours, the conversation was running hard into a fetid trench. And yet the debate was an oasis of palpable importance, with questions drawn from the concerns of a beleaguered citizenry.

The candidates offered sharp exchanges over foreign policy and the state of the economy. Obama, affectingly, explained his definition of a "right" to health care with his own story of loss. John McCain rolled out a mortgage policy package that no one saw coming -- an exciting enough event to bring flack Carly Fiorina back from the gulag. Was it two men at peak performance? No. Was it as high-minded as it could have been? No. But this debate could have been much, much worse. It was certainly an improvement over the vice-presidential debate -- an event that people only watched in anticipation of a televised geek show, which failed to deliver even that. No debate this season has managed to achieve the excellence of April's stupidly-named-but-bracingly-thoughtful "Compassion Forum," or the loose-limbed, unpredictable first "YouTube debate," but I'd easily place last night's debate on the upper half of the spectrum.

VandeHei/Harris' reasoning, throughout their tiresome little article, leaves a lot to be desired. Honestly, it was hard not to click away after this sentence, "Ordinarily, the national stage can take even life-size pols such as Michael Dukakis and imbue them with an outsize aura." Sorry, but, no. The stage has not yet been invented that could imbue Michael Dukakis with an aura -- even a compact, fuel-efficient one!

Oddly, their leading complaint was the rules that governed the debate, which they say limited "improvisation, intellectual engagement and truth-telling." They don't really say why this is, other than to cite "constraining" rules that limited the role of Tom Brokaw, who as moderator, isn't responsible for improvisation, intellectualism or truth! For that matter, Brokaw did on several occasions break the "no follow up" rule last night. The candidates clearly ignored the rules governing territorial markings and making physical contact with the questioners. The producers of the telecast broke the rules governing showing reaction shots of the questioners. And the candidates themselves managed to overrule the rules at one point, winning themselves a chance at a follow-up response that both clearly wanted. Barack Obama and John McCain came to an historic accord last night!

Oh! Also, apparently, this is the first time ever that these two reporters have been dumbstruck by debate participants glibly worming their way out of answering direct questions (emphasis mine):

When Sarah Palin dodged questions with scripted messages and folksy one-liners in her debate against Joe Biden her nonresponsiveness was often glaringly obvious.

With McCain and Obama, you have to print out the transcript and read carefully to fully appreciate how they glided past sharp questions.
Because both have gone through dozens of such encounters over the past couple of years, and because Obama in particular is an exceptionally fluent speaker, their answers can sound plausible -- even when the fog machine is going full blast.

Astoundingly, this section is given the heading, "The Candidates Are Stumped," but reading this complaint, you can't help but notice that the source of VandeHei and Harris' resentment was that they, themselves were stumped! Sarah Palin's transparent incompetence was exciting because it made them feel superior, but mean old Obama and McCain were so hard to parse that they has to "print out the transcript" and do actual work! About the only other things they have to say on this matter was that both candidates successfully evaded directly answering questions (SHOCK!) and that "everyone was winging it, hoping to get out of the evening alive."

Oh. They also say: "The fog was not confined to the financial crisis. It also covered the debate over Iraq, which was almost entirely backward-looking." They cite no examples of how any of this was "backward-looking." And here's some straight talk, people: They've got some good content over there, but the next time The Politico writes a "forward-looking" piece on the Iraq War will be the first time. No one over there's going to get mistaken for Leila Fadel in our lifetimes.

Another complaint is that there "was no independent on the stage." Very true. Ross Perot was not on that stage last night. It's sort of weird, though, to complain after the fact that the debate failed to deliver upon something it could never promise in the first place! That's sort of like being angry that there wasn't an awesome zombie battle scene in last night's Seinfeld rerun.

But, honestly, it's on their last point that VandeHei and Harris enmesh themselves in a session of full-on projection. They title the section, "Self-Importance." They complain that the candidates failed to deliver as "cult-of-personality candidates." Neither "showed much humor." There was "a tense mood." And yet, despite stowing their personalities and emphasizing policy, the two decree the "I-love-me quotient has rarely been higher." Maybe the reason that the candidates downplayed their personal narratives, eschewed jokes, acknowledged the tension, and emphasized policy was because the questions being asked came from the mouths and minds of actual citizens who, facing war and crisis up close, aren't indulgent of media obsessions like William Ayers.

Maybe the problem with the "I-love-me" formulation is that the debate successfully refused to calibrate itself to serve the pleasure of media professionals. "Fascinating biographies" and "more creative brand[s] of politics" are the exciting stories that reporters want to write. For many Americans, however, their lives have gotten a little too exciting -- for all the wrong reasons. More than anything else, with two wars going on and the markets doing arrhythmic gymnastics, most Americans would be happy for a some boring days on the horizon.

One last note on this article. It actually identifies Obama as "the younger man -- trying to make history as the first African-American president." Oooh! Really! You've got that all figured out? Tell me: is this news some sort of Politico exclusive?