Countless trees and electrons will give their lives over the next few days as newspapers, televison and yes, blogs like this one try to dope out who won Friday night's presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. And they'll almost all be wrong. If history tells us anything, it's that debates -- when they make a difference at all -- almost never turn on the sort of stuff that excites the chattering classes.
Columnists and commentators argued endlessly about whether John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon offered the best ideas to win the Cold War in the first televised debate in 1960. Nobody anticipated that voters would declare Kennedy the winner because he sweated less or looked more tan on camera. In 1980, the instant analysis almost unanimously favored Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan. It wasn't until after the election that the impact of Reagan's simple question to voters -- are you better off than you were four years ago? -- became apparent.
Much of the problem is that journalists and policy-wonk commentators inevitably evaluate debates in terms of the currency of their own little society -- the twinkletoes quip, the glib retort, the ability to quickly marshal facts into complete sentences and crisp paragraphs.
But voters don't equate articulation with intelligence -- surely neither of the malaprop-prone Bushes would ever have been elected if that were the case -- and in any event they don't see presidential elections as IQ tests. Surely no one thought Reagan was smarter than Carter, who never failed to remind us that he was a Rhodes scholar and an Evelyn Wood speed reader. Reagan, though, convinced voters that he shared their values, that the America he was headed for was the same one they wanted.
Of course, once in a while the debates offer up an obvious political bonecrusher: Gerald Ford claiming Poland was not part of the Soviet bloc, Lloyd Bentsen's instant evisceration of Dan Quayle. ("Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.")
But if there was a bleedout moment Friday night, it wasn't instantly obvious. The closest call may have been McCain's can-you-believe-this-guy swipe at Obama's stated desire to hold talks with Iran's ravingly anti-Semitic president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: "So let me get this right," McCain said, rolling his eyes. "We sit down with Ahmadinejad and he says, 'We're gonna wipe Israel off the face of the Earth. And we say, 'Oh no you're not.' Oh, please."
McCain certainly landed his punch -- it was the only time all night that the audience in the hall broke into laughter -- and the jibe fit perfectly into one of his dominant narratives, that Obama lacks the experience to play on a world stage.
That's what (ital)can(ital) make a presidential debate decisive, a signature moment that either confirms or demolishes a campaign theme. Almost as important for Reagan in 1980 as his are-you-better-off question was his amiable but firm response to Carter's attacks: "There he goes again..." His geniality erased the portrait of Reagan that Carter had been painting for voters, that of a nuclear cowboy nutcase, a guy way too crazy to have his finger on the button.
But McCain's barb, edgy as it was, seemed unlikely to undo Obama's performance in the rest of the date: suave, loquacious, facts at his fingertips as he rattled off the names of the new generation of NATO members or reviewed McCain's record on Iraq. Whether you agree with his policy prescriptions or not, Obama didn't seem like a Bobbsey Twin on a foreign policy adventure.
Nor did McCain live down to his negative campaign stereotype, that of a querulous old grouch. Or, rather, he embraced it, repeating two or three times that he didn't win any Miss Congeniality awards in the Senate, always in there battling political pork.
In fact, these debates -- there are two more scheduled before the election -- seem unlikely to put either candidate in a new light. Far more likely is that voters will suffer debate exhaustion: Over the past 18 months, we've seen Obama in 23 debates and McCain in 15. If either of them were going to melt down, surely it would have happened by now. Doesn't this campaign have a fast-forward button?