The debate, like the electoral college, is an outmoded institution dating back to another time when candidates for political office were capable of expressing ideas that could not be compressed into a misleading five word slogan.
The debates are rarely about a public interested in weighing and measuring ideas, but a reality show where the candidate who has one bad moment becomes fodder for the late night jokes of the next day. And if the candidates and the public are sub-par, the moderators are even worse appearing only to promote one candidate and one agenda.
It's not that we don't have a culture of ideas because the public is stupid, though a key section of the electorate certainly wouldn't qualify to vote under any poll test, but because our politics are stupid. Our politics are relentlessly short term, our policies extend to the next month and our awareness barely lasts that long.
The Lincoln Douglas debates appealed to a country that thought long term, that measured politicians the way that investors measure a prospectus. Our current debates appeal to a country where people get incoherently frustrated when their signal drops and who don't watch TV anymore because it's easier to catch the highlights tomorrow. These are the types of people who will accept the robbing of their retirement accounts so the government can go on making them feel good about themselves.
The deficit has reached a catastrophic number, social security has been running a deficit since 2010 and we're slicing the military to pieces to pay for foreign aid to Afghanistan. None of this should be stomached by an electorate capable of doing the math, but much of the electorate can't do the math and a bigger piece of it doesn't want to.
Obama achieved a clean break with the reality-based politics of the past by just making things up all the time, claims, laws and budgets. What he figured out is what most politicians have suspected but never dared act on, that a sizable percent of the public can tell apart individual lies, but are unable to do so when everything that politician says is a complete lie.
By every measure and standard, he has failed in all his commitments. The economy is a disaster, the war in Afghanistan is toast, the jobs aren't coming, the growth isn't here and Al Qaeda is surging in North Africa. Past politicians would have struggled, made promises and assured the country that they would do better. Such dishonest honesty is not for Obama. The Prince of Chicago doesn't concede that there are any problems and the media corps gathers around to back him up with clamorous fact checks and stories that have nothing to do with the real world.
Among the unfit voters are a sizable percent of those who do not understand the issues or care about the issues. All they want to do is vote for the candidate that everyone else is voting for. But they are dwarfed by special interest voters who understand only those issues immediately relevant to them. They don't care about the national interest, about the national economy or national security, what they want to know are the immediate benefits that will come to them one way or another.
The world could end tomorrow and they would take it as a personal slight, rather than a global tragedy. They have been trained to have a chip on one shoulder and a hand thrust out from the other. They don't want to hear anything about America, they want to hear only about themselves. They will pay attention only far enough to determine which politician is pandering hardest to them. And they will almost always vote leftward, not because the left represents their interests, but because their egos never let them explore their interests past the pandering.
Any political campaign today is short circuited by group interests. Like a broken marriage the whole thing shamelessly dissolves into a custody battle over idiot voters with both embittered parents promising the brat that they will buy him more stuff so long as he denounces the other one. They lie of course, but the brat never learns that no matter how many times they promise him a 4x4 and leave him with a matchbox car and a huge bill.
And so this brings us to Campaign 2012 with Daddy Romney trying to be non-threatening and Mommy Obama screaming that he's a selfish bastard who will never buy them all the right toys. Ideas swiftly give way to sentimentality with pain-feeling empathy sessions and more hard luck tales than a convention of inspirational speakers could gin up. Everyone quotes numbers and those numbers just become more counters in an unreal online debate where one side just makes things up and the other side tries to show that it's operating in a completely unreal universe.
The debate, like most reality show showdowns, will come down to editing room shenanigans and the pre-existing narrative that the producers are determined to push regardless of the results. The viewers who have yet to decide are not there for answers, they are there to see who has the best catchphrases and who flinches or says something dumb. They are there to be entertained.
The perverse thing about the internet is that not only are people not better informed than they were in 1858, but they actually know much less than their great-great-grandparents did. And that isn't about to change. What new media has done is helped create a stalemate, but it hasn't broken the perversion that is modern journalism, all it has done is made it uneasy and kept it from claiming all the mental territory that it has attempted to occupy. But it has done this at a cost of generating more noise to drown out the signal. To beat the media, it has become like the media, and the media has become like it. In five years there will hardly be any difference between them as they tumble into a volcano with a death grip around each other's pageviews.
Obama and Romney will mention manufacturing, the progress that women have made, Israel, their wives, their children, the troops overseas, the economic recovery and their hopes for the future. Mostly they will be enacting a ritual, at the end of which the media will declare Obama the winner and the swing voters will remain vaguely undecided. A few people will still remember when the ritual had substance, when conventions were as heavily contested as ideas, and candidates expressed ideas that weren't narrowly targeted to be inoffensive and win over wavering voters. Millions more will tune in to next week's Saturday Night Live to find out what they should think about the debate.