We’re Here To Watch A Fight
Or Why I Don’t Watch the US Presidential Debates for Cogent Arguments on the Real Issues
So, let me tell you about how I’ve actually watched the US presidential debates this year. First, I don’t watch the main television debates live, and I don’t listen to the live audio of the candidates. Watching Donald Trump say or do anything at this point makes me viscerally angry and disgusted. And my insatiable desire to see the moderators call him out on his his virtually unprecedented level of malignant mendacity, and to watch Hillary tear his throat out (metaphorically) and beat him to death with his own larynx (metaphorically) on the actual content of his dangerous and malicious stances and rhetoric, makes me stressed and frustrated. And this is because it literally can’t be done (and, practically speaking, probably shouldn’t be attempted) to my satisfaction in the span of a 90 minute broadcast.
Instead, I do a few alternative things. I get some comfort food together (pizza for this second round), and open up the live blogs and commentary from a few sources I trust (usually FiveThirtyEight, Fusion, and my own glorious echo chamber of a Twitter feed), and settle in. For background noise, I put on entertainment I actually enjoy, like the Hamilton soundtrack, a Netflix series(Jessica Jones this time, seemed like a good time to see a super hero take down her hideous and dehumanizing abuser for some reason), or my new favorite podcast, My Favorite Murder. I’ll watch some edited highlights as they come out and, starting with this second debate, I’ll also take the time to glance at the muted live video thumbnail of the debate in the corner of Twitter, just to get a feel for the staging and body language of the thing.
I do this for a few reasons. First, I value my own sanity and happiness, and experience has taught me that watching the general election presidential debates is counterproductive to those values. Second, I know I’m unlikely to get the issues-based, rational discussion that the word “debate” implies. And lastly, coming off of that previous point, I don’t watch the so called “debates” to see a debate anymore.
Instead, I come to watch the fight.
And I don’t do this because I don’t value the issues and ideals of the election, but because I do. Since I know that to be true, I don’t want to let it cloud my judgement of how the debate goes, or my ability to see what I can do to bolster the causes I stand with in the aftermath. I watch to see who’s standing, and if it’s my guy or the opponent.
This may seem cynical, ill-informed, or even stupid, but give me a chance to explain.
I, like most US voters, am a decided and strong partisan for one side. In particular, I am a far-left, liberal, registered democrat who always votes. Furthermore, like most Americans, I have always lived and voted outside of swing states, meaning that in presidential election years, my vote for president in the general election is literally the least meaningful vote I cast. This is especially true in my voting lifetime, where the solid states, especially the solid blue states, have been fairly stable. No one has swung New York or California, the two states in which I’ve spent almost all of my adult life, off color in the last quarter century. However, I am politically active, volunteering for campaigns for my candidates, taking my votes in primaries very seriously, and doing my best to study every down ballot candidate and prospect. I take my right to vote and my rights to speech and political participation very seriously.
The issues matter, the platforms matter, the direction and leadership at every level of government matters, though movement in the direction I want never seems to go fast enough, and any ground lost the other way seems to collapsing faster polar glaciers into the sea. And they are what matters most in politics, as they define your base, your party, your platform, your politics, and your direction.
But they don’t mean f**k all in the debates. Because we’re in the homestretch, the ideological battle is over, the platforms set, and, for the most part, the partisans decided. As I write this, we are 29 days away from October 8th — exactly one election year February from the endgame.
The only thing the issues of the election serve for in the debates is as a certain kind of plot device, one we call a McGuffin in storytelling jargon, a thing which only exists to motivate the plot. What, then, actually matters in the debates? Stage craft, performance, charisma, audience reaction, messaging, optics, and composure — all of which are elements of the narrative and performing arts rather than true, rational debate. If you’re thinking that I’m saying this means the better argument and stronger ideological position doesn’t actually mean much in the presidential debates, then I invite you to split my post-debate Oreos with me, ’cause you’re 100% right.
Also, we all deserve something like a cookie, something sweet to the taste buds and good for the soul, after watching or following this dreck. Keep hope and optimism alive, my friends. We need it regardless of the climate and outcome of this election, which, by my estimate, has gone on for the emotional equivalent of 32 years.
But back on point, there is actually an issue of depth that’s at play in this battle of stage craft, and it is actually something that matters:
Character and Temperament.
We, the decided partisans who make up the vast majority of American voters, over 80% by current polls, feel a twist in our stomachs when we hear these brought up. They echo in our ears of the maligned “charisma” and the classic story of the “popularity contest”. But they are the deciding factor now, they are the make or break for the candidates, because they sway the true audience that’s left to be swayed.
This group, the only people in still play, are the undecideds, both the true and the leaners. The true middle roaders want to be convinced to one side, and the leaners want to see if their closest partisan can make a strong enough case, and their biggest opponent present a great enough threat, to earn their support, and take it away from a third party protest or an apathetic abstention. And since stances are mostly known and the candidates media saturated, the only thing left when they appear on stage together is who can look better, who can come out less sullied and scuffed, less wounded and more upright. Who can win a battle of character and temperament.
Now look, it is both easy and understandable to demean this quality as shallow and vapid, and those still waiting to be swung by it as detached or naive. It’s similarly easy to lose all hope watching these debates which at their best are defined by an empty but erudite match of poise and decorum, and at worst, internationally embarrassing pits of slung mud, and never once, true blue theaters of the issues we know to be in the balance on election day.
But here’s the thing — there is a real issue at play when we talk about character and temperament, perhaps one that we can term as leadership, but that doesn’t do it justice. We might phrase it in questions as “do I like you?” or “who’d be better to have a drink with?” but those bubba factor angles are both trite and out of play, and even the more on point “can I trust you?” is off when so many people on all sides dislike the candidates on either side. As such, I think the best way to phrase the meaningful question here is a line off of the classic red phone 3 AM phone call:
“When negotiations are stalled, when lives are on the line, when a big enough enemy or crisis appears such that it can threaten the union and all of us in it, will you stay strong, steady, and firm, hoisting us up on your shoulders, or will you collapse under the pressure, taking us down with you?”
That’s the battle being fought, and it takes cunning, strategy, and a steady hand to come out on top of it in the long run. So what does that mean for the spectacle we see unfold? It means preparing to play the game and playing it better than your opponent. Simply put, if you’re temperament, composure, and message can be more mangled than your adversary’s in a simple war of words, if you can’t come out higher on questions of your character and requests to follow up, if you can’t come off as the more cool, calm and collected party — or at the very least the more steadfast and stable — then your dreams of being handed the keys to the biggest national economy and military force in history are over. Like I said, I spent some of these debates listening to the Hamilton original cast recording, and the choice by Miranda to make the debates in the musical rap battles couldn’t be more apropos to the modern day real thing (and twitter agrees with me).
So I reiterate, we’re not here to listen to a debate, we’re here to watch a fight.
So let’s talk about how I — a random, snarky, animator-writer-filmmaker-guy on the internet with no particular qualifications but strong opinions — think that fight went.
A lot of what I’ve said following my intentionally honest and partisan opening has been, I think, fairly relatable to the vast majority of American voters, regardless of their political stripes. Fair disclaimer now, though, I’m going back to being my own brand of quite to the left democratic partisan zebra now, and I’m staying out of the tall grass camouflage from here on out. I am decided. I was equally behind both Hillary and Bernie in the primary, and as I intended to do since that point, I am now volunteering and making phone calls for the standard bearer of democratic party, and, since I do actually like Hillary, I am happy doing it. I am biased, and that is my bias. If you somehow got through my opener but cannot deal with that perspective, I take no offense, here’s your get out of jail free card, exit’s the little ‘x’ at the top right of your browser tab.
So who really won? Who came off better? What was the decisive victory, who scored a knock out? And all of that in mind, who’s winning now overall? The short answers:
- It was pretty much a tie.
- Clinton, by a small but important amount.
- There wasn’t one and no one.
- Clinton, and by a lot.
Now, the long answers. First, let me say that I think there’s a good chance that this outcome was actually the best possible one for Clinton strategically. There’s a good chance that if she had gone as or even more aggressive than she did in the first debate, she could have mopped the floor with Trump, and obliterated him by luring an already heavily wounded opponent into a ninety minute spree of self destructive anger and rage. She could have nailed him on all the issues, constantly dragged the man on his own increasing scandals (the “October Surprise” is you get all the October Surprises, Donny!), and run circles around him on everything from policy to moral fiber. And she did a bit, especially in the beginning half hour, but if you have the liberal progressive group of family and friends that I do, you’re probably seeing more than a couple of them seething that she didn’t keep going and do more to pound her repulsive opponent into orange pulp. And for the record, I feel that, I understand that, and it’s something I want. Also, I firmly believe that if Hillary had intended to do that, she could have (I almost said “if she wanted to,” but I’m pretty sure that she did indeed want to).
But, looking to the long game, there’s a huge chance it could have been a costly and massive mistake.
There’s a few reasons for this. First, Hillary, like every woman in America (and probably every woman everywhere), stands to lose a lot by seeming too aggressive — especially when she already has what is seen as a marked advantage. This point also plays into fact that, more than ever before, Clinton’s watermark for both “success” and “victory” in the debate is exceptionally higher than her opponent’s, but more on that in a little bit. Second, a “knock out”, an overwhelmingly decisive victory over the currently scandal-ensconced Trump, actually risks an increased non-zero chance of the unprecedented but now called for withdrawal of his candidacy to actually occurs, or at the very least, a strong chance of increasing the bleeding and abandonment of mainstream support from the GOP to their candidate.
The problem of this result is definitely farther off but perhaps far more costly to her in a political agenda and historical impact sense. While it is true that Trump removing himself from the running and/or the GOP fully abandoning him in the election would, with greater certainty than almost any other conceivable scenario, deliver assured victory in the election into Hillary’s hands, it would do so without the force of precedent, and with the almost guaranteed cost of some or all of the legitimacy of her platform and presidency. Winning the presidency without winning the vote presents a dangerously precarious position towards losing the war for the political direction of the country and the historic legacy of said administration.
Hillary is regarded by many experts to be the most politically experienced, studied, and informed operator in this history of non-incumbent candidates for the presidency. It’s a fair assumption that she’s probably aware of these potential problems with this tact, and cares quite a bit about avoiding them. In addition, the aggressive, go for the jugular tactics needed for a knock out are extremely high risk for Hillary based on the fact that she: A) as stated before, already has a far higher bar of “success” or “victory” than her opponent, and B) the double standard of expectation of performance she’s held already increases the risk and difficulty of such a victory.
In this case, she is literally being held to two standards — to decisively win a battle of character in the debate, she needs to meet our cultural standards for both a “great politician” and a “great woman,” and many of those fly right in the face of each other. She’d have to be assertive but not overly aggressive, likable and warm but not weak or emotional, powerful and smart but not bossy or a know-it-all, charismatic but not shallow, beautiful but not vapid, caring but not too matronly, cunning but not devious, and strong but (and I hate to use this word to describe women so I’m censoring it) not “a b***h”. It’s unrealistic, nigh impossible, and obnoxious to hold people to this kind of expectation in any circumstance, but if you know anyone who could do that face to face on stage with Donald J. Trump, please tell us who they are immediately, as they will clearly one day create peace between all nations and elected first president of the planet Earth.
On the other hand, Trump’s bar for “success” (and I say success because I truly believe all people tuning in regarded a real “victory” for Trump as impossible) was so low that it essentially was “don’t sexually assault anybody, don’t try taking a swing at Hillary, don’t literally or figuratively burst into flames, and don’t try to kill Anderson Cooper”. And he pretty much accomplished all of that (though the flippant remark about jailing his opponent is pretty damn close to the verbal equivalent of trying to punch her). The fact that he did this is why it’s pretty easy to call the debate a tie. Keep in mind, although Hillary is leading modestly in the scientific reaction polls for who won the debate, that would be expected right now in the event of a virtual tie given the sheer impact of the “Trump Tapes” scandal topping off an already near unbelievable (in quantity, not quality) string of scandals for trump. Hillary winning by anything less than 20% is pretty much a “success” for Trump in these circumstances.
Both candidates were able, as far as the night went, to essentially do no harm — whether new or continued— to themselves during the debate. And for the standards they were being held to, that qualifies as a successful night for Trump. For Hillary, though, it only counts as not losing.
But here’s the thing — to turn around the tide in this moment, Trump doesn’t need to do know harm, he needs to climb. Stymieing the bleed is not enough when you need a transfusion. As Nate Silver put it at 538, he likely didn’t help himself, and he needs help. Hillary can afford to run out the clock. She can afford to play d and rally her troops, she can afford to take the time to turn Trump’s mistakes and missteps from the night become ammunition in her team’s arsenal. Wandering nonsense about his predatory scandal-making remarks being locker room banter that’s not as bad as ISIS — attack ad. Trump sniffing constantly — montage. Trump promising to prosecute and imprison her like a fascist dictator if he wins — packaged and off to all the news and social media sources for all the horror it implies. Trump looming like a slasher movie monster when Hillary poses herself to put him there in each shot, harkening back to her husband’s similar tact in 1992 — beam that straight to twitter and let the memetic mutation begin. And Trump, in possibly his biggest f**k up of the night, calling Clinton a persistent “fighter” who doesn’t give up? Why not just make that the center piece of your next highlight reel.
Could I be wrong about some or all of this? Yes, clearly — as stated above, I’m some rando on the internet. Am I also highly biased, trying to boost my own friends’ and allies’ morale and enthusiasm by positioning our candidate as a great tactician making all the right calls? It’s an awfully leading question, but yes, yes, I am doing that. I am definitely doing that.
The finish line is in sight, and the final rounds are ready to start, with our fighter fresh and steady compared to a punch drunk competitor, but one with a vicious streak. We’re perfectly poised to put him down, but it’s not going to be a battle we win with facts or well thought out arguments anymore, and it’s not one where we need to have decisive victory in every battle. We just need to not lose, and note let his team gain any ground, until we give the coup de grâce on the 8th of November.
Don’t get frustrated with a single bout not being a devastating, high-minded victory of ideals when we’re so close to winning the war.
And maybe, for your own sake, watch debate 3 on mute.