Will the first Democratic debate be boring? No.

13 Oct 2015 02:20 pm
Posted by: Donna

Tonight’s Democratic debate, held at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, has been pronounced in advance to be a snoozefest, as it will likely be heavy on policy and light (to nonexistent) on the exciting personal attacks and stupefyingly dumb and/or dishonest statements we’ve grown to expect from the GOP debates. And though Hillary Clinton is said to be going in with “high expectations” (heard that phrase a lot from the cable pundits this morning), they have already declared her the loser. She will perhaps commit a terrible, campaign-derailing gaffe or she will be flawless but boring by talking about policy too much. Or she’ll try to connect with the audience emotionally and that will be characterized as insincere. Or whatever. It’s been decided amongst the pundit class that Hillary Clinton cannot win.

It’s often jarring how policy-averse some of the most prominent people covering Presidential campaigns can be. I first really noticed it in 2000, when the MSM had grand, giggly lark focusing on Al Gore’s “stiffness” and supposed exaggerations, while contrasting that with George W. Bush’s alleged affability and ease around people (especially reporters). Policy discussions were treated as an annoying obstacle to the theater and costume criticism, as we can see in Evgenia Peretz’s 2007 Vanity Fair recollection of how Al and Tipper Gore were savaged by the media in the 2000 campaign.

Perhaps reporting in this vein was just too gratifying to the press for it to stop. As Time magazine’s Margaret Carlson admitted to Don Imus at the time, “You can actually disprove some of what Bush is saying if you really get into the weeds and get out your calculator, or look at his record in Texas. But it’s really easy, and it’s fun to disprove Al Gore. As sport, and as our enterprise, Gore coming up with another whopper is greatly entertaining to us.”

A study conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 76 percent of stories about Gore in early 2000 focused on either the theme of his alleged lying or that he was marred by scandal, while the most common theme about Bush was that he was “a different kind of Republican.”…

…One obstacle course the press set up was which candidate would lure voters to have a beer with them at the local bar. “Journalists made it seem like that was a legitimate way of choosing a president,” says Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter. “They also wrongly presumed, based on nothing, that somehow Bush was more likable.” Chris Matthews contends that “the likability issue was something decided by the viewers of the debates, not by the commentators,” but adds, “The last six years have been a powerful bit of evidence that we have to judge candidates for president on their preparation for the office with the same relish that we assess their personalities.”

Maureen Dowd boiled the choice between Gore and Bush down to that between the “pious smarty-pants” and the “amiable idler,” and made it perfectly clear which of the presidential candidates had a better chance of getting a date. “Al Gore is desperate to get chicks,” she said in her column. “Married chicks. Single chicks. Old chicks. Young chicks. If he doesn’t stop turning off women, he’ll never be president.”

“I bet he is in a room somewhere right now playing Barry White CDs and struggling to get mellow,” she wrote in another.

Meanwhile, though Dowd certainly questioned Bush’s intellect in some columns, she seemed to be charmed by him—one of the “bad boys,” “rascals,” and a “rapscallion.” She shared with the world a charged moment between them. “‘You’re so much more mature now,’ I remarked to the Texas Governor. ‘So are you,’ he replied saucily.” And in another column: “You don’t often get to see a Presidential candidate bloom right before your eyes.”

As the Daily Howler noted, MSNBC anchor Brian Williams went after Gore’s clothes at least five times in one week. “Here is a guy taking off his suits.… This is the casual sweater look—what’s going on here?” … “He would have been in a suit a month ago.” … “He’s wearing these polo shirts that don’t always look natural on him.” Williams’s frequent guest Newsweek’s Howard Fineman later chimed in: “I covered his last presidential campaign, in 1988. One day he was in the conservative blue suit, the next he was playing lumberjack at the V.F.W. hall in New Hampshire.”

It really was that bad. Put in perspective, it puts a brighter outlook on this election for Democrats. In the fifteen intervening years, social media has grown to be an exponentially more powerful check on the MSM than it was in 2000. While I’d never say it was impossible, it is certainly much more difficult for the GOP to pull off the “compassionate conservative” con job while smearing the Democratic nominee this time around.

As for the “boring” Democratic debate, Amanda Marcotte of Salon points out that the last GOP debate was mostly a three hour yawn punctuated by a few shockers (like Carly Fiorina’s imaginary Planned Parenthood video). There was nothing substantive to it, just the GOP candidates regurgitating the same right wing talking points with little variation. There are enough real differences between the Democratic candidates to keep tonight’s debate interesting and most of the stances they are taking on a variety of issues are actually very popular with the general public. I’ve seen all of them speak and each does a capable job of communicating values and speaking in broad strokes about policy without getting into wonky details (which can admittedly be boring). It won’t be a drinking game debate but it won’t be dull either.

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