The debate tonight

I have no idea what to expect any more. And, hey, I'm the champion debate watcher in the entire world!

For instance:

  • "Everyone knows," based on a long string of past episodes, that some unintentional flash of character revelation usually turns out to be the memorable aspect of a presidential debate. Eg: Nixon looking furtive and sweaty in 1960, Ford momentarily seemed befuddled in 1976, Dukakis seeming bloodless in 1988, etc. All these moments "mattered" because they crystallized a feeling that, in retrospect, people knew they'd "always had" about the candidate.

    In the days since the first Obama-McCain debate, it's become ever clearer that John McCain's sourness and anger are the traits unintentionally revealed in the debate and now working against him. His shockingly dyspeptic performance two days ago at the Des Moines Register was as remarkable as Bill Clinton's worst moments during the primary season this year. The difference is that in his prime Clinton never allowed the public to see that side of him. Plus, the image Clinton had cemented back then was of someone who was genial and talented though  undisciplined. Thanks to McCain's hostile refusal to engage Obama as a human equal face-to-face at the debate, the image he is cementing is that of a seething older man. Like Bob Dole in 1996, with less of a gift for one-liners.

    It all fits into a pattern in retrospect -- but I don't know a single "expert" who predicted that avoiding eye contact would be the enduring image of the first debate. By similar reasoning, I'm sure that two or three days from now, we'll all say "Of course!" about some moment in the Biden-Palin debate that none of us can foresee now. That's why we watch!
  • "Everyone knows" that Sarah Palin has set expectations so low that she is likely to do "surprisingly" well. Joe Biden will be judged on whether he gets anything wrong; Palin, on whether she gets anything right.

    But each time we think we've seen the bottom of her performance, she has gone on to do even worse. Looking back, her reponse to Charlie Gibson about "the Bush doctrine" now seems harmless and comparatively well-informed. Each of her interviews with Katie Couric has revealed greater ignorance, compared with the previous one.

    The latest, about the Supreme Court, was unbelievable not for the most highly-publicized reason (inability to name any Court decision other than Roe v Wade) but for her apparent unfamiliarity with the relationship between the U.S. Constitution and individual states' rights. She asserted, with great geniality and calm, that a right could be "inherent" in the Constitution but then be administered at each state's discretion. Kind of like the right to vote regardless of gender being recognized in the 19th Amendment, but then left to each state to enforce or not. People have remarked on her nervousness when grasping for names or references. I actually find her confidence at moments like this more disturbing, since it indicates that she has no idea of what she has revealed.

    I still think she'll beat expectations, because her basic political and empathetic skills have to be better than what we've seen so far. Also, the format of the debate allows less room for the immediate follow-up questions that Katie Couric used to such polite but devastating effect. But it's all a guess.

  • "Everyone knows" that Joe Biden has to be careful tonight -- not make any more of his own frequent gaffes, not do anything that would engender (interesting word in itself) underdog sympathy for Palin. But no one really knows beforehand how much assertiveness by Biden would seem too much, too little, or Just Right. Once it's over, we'll all be able to judge whether he struck the right balance. Ahead of the game, no one can be sure.

Sign of my sincerity in saying this will be deeply interesting: postponing a big trip for 24 hours, because the original schedule would have had me on an airplane when the debate goes live. This is not to be missed.