"Forget the journalists," George W. Bush announced during a particularly testy exchange in tonight's town-meeting debate. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but there was no forgetting of the major league a--holes during the night's festivities. Indeed, if last night's town hall debates proved anything, it was the influence of the media, in particular television analysts, on the candidates and their strategy and the audience itself.
Don't believe me? Ask the candidates. Both of them explicitly referred to their own debate strategy during the debate, using the language of political commentators to point out the blueprints of their performance even as they gave them. Bush, voicing his distrust of big government, said that was "one of the themes you'll hear tonight." Al Gore repeatedly pointed out "there's a contrast [between us]," as if to say, "See? I'm drawing concrete distinctions, just like you all said I should after Round 2." It was a truly media-age moment: two presidential candidates punditizing themselves on stage.
How appropriate that this should happen in this most TV-centric of the three debates the town hall debate, the Oprah debate, the debate format in which Bill Clinton in 1992 ushered in eight years of talk-show politics. And how ironic, in a debate where professional journalists otherwise faded into the background. In St. Louis, a group of midwesterners, having been judged by popular opinion to be more normal than anyone else in America (and I assure you, as a native of Michigan, that this is not true), were selected to ask the questions.
Unlike most sops to American electoral populism, this one is actually a pretty good idea. Sure, the idea that this was anything like an unfiltered vox populi was bogus. Sure, the questions were no doubt thoroughly vetted before airing. (And why? Would it have killed us to have somebody ask George W. Bush if he snorted coke off a stripper's naked belly, or ask Al Gore if he shot Vincent Foster?) And sure, the questions, coming from "undecided" voters, by their nature represented a sector of the populace that hasn't paid enough attention in a year and a half of politicking to make up their damn minds already.
Nonetheless, the audience of amateurs managed to zing off a few better and more pointed questions than Jim Lehrer had asked in two weeks. One teacher and parent, for instance, asked the candidates how they would hold uninvolved parents, and not just schools, accountable for their kids' behavior inviting the candidates to do the unthinkable: suggest that American parents might be responsible for some of their own kids' problems.
It's also a debate format that puts as much emphasis on what the candidates do when they're not talking as when they are talking, since the theater-in-the-round keeps both of them on camera a substantial amount of the time. If you believe that you see the true man during his down time, it doesn't speak well for either candidate. Gore tended to freeze ramrod-straight when finished, like a photocopier gone into energy-conservation mode; Bush had a disconcerting tendency to cross his hands in front of his crotch and sway, as though he just realized he'd been hitting the podium-side water a little too heavily. Sorry to be a broken record, but it reinforced the old stereotypes of each man: Gore as machine, Bush as restless first grader.
Of course, most of all this debate was about preparation. After a debate in which he repeatedly got downright testy with the aggressive Gore who returned to his pushy, interjecting Round 1 roots Bush closed with genial closing remarks he was determined, come hell or high dudgeon, to give. (And who doesn't think his closing "good luck" to Gore wasn't planned?) Like his opponent, he trawled to his questioners for eye contact, hoping for that decisive, Clintonian, feel-your-pain moment.
But per usual, no one could outprepare Al Gore. He walked up to the edge of the audience, Clinton-style, if without Clinton's emotionally hungry ease. He called attention to his departures from his Round 2 pussycat posture. And he came prepared with opening eulogies not just for late Missouri governor Mel Carnahan but the sailors killed on the USS Cole, which took over half his first response. By the time he cited Carnahan's record in a later question on affirmative action, we were witness to a classic instance of Gore-esque coffin-riding, à la his 1992 and 1996 convention speeches. (Whereas Bush, thankfully quickly, wished God's blessings on those whose "lives were overturned.")
In all, it was yet another lesson in the vanishing line between the genuine and the artificial, the amateur and the pundit. And that was underscored in the news networks' post-debate "town meetings" and "focus groups," where the undecideds proved they could out-commentate the commentators. With disturbing professionalism, they dissected the candidates' performances and body language like bloodless insiders. "[Gore] seemed more genuine in his answers," said one not "was," but "seemed."
No wonder they're undecided. Just like all good pundits, they've learned how to subordinate their actual concerns about how their country is governed to their analysis of the ballgame, horse race or whatever other overused metaphor you've got. "I think Bush won it because Gore lost it," a typical respondent said. "But I still don't know who I'm going to vote for."
Forget the journalists? Not by a long shot. "We live in a hothouse environment," said CNN's Judy Woodruff during that network's real-people segment, referring to Washington journalists. But it's a much bigger hothouse than she expects. We may or may not actually vote in the next election; half of us probably won't. But in this media age, we can all comment on it like pros.