Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Keep Yapping, Man


"I don't really care, do u?" Seated between grand duchesses, the empress feels safer with her mask on. Photo by Jim Watson/AFP via Business Insider.

What are those debates supposed to be for, incidentally? Does anybody remember? I'm recalling this concept of how you'd have your candidates discuss the issues and voters would be able to use the discussion to make up their minds who to vote for. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Illinois Senate contest, in several meetings where one speaker gave a 60-minute presentation, the other responded with 90 minutes (rebuttal and presentation), and the first returned with 30 more, and the texts were published in all the newspapers (no broadcasting yet), and the citizens decided they were OK with allowing slavery in the northern territories (changing their minds when the two ran for the presidency two years later and the issues, or perhaps the reality of the new Republican Party, had become clearer). 

Nothing like that could have happened last night, since one candidate did not know how to discuss any issues, and the other one did not have any opportunity to, because the first one kept interrupting him and trying to shout him down whenever he tried to. 

JOE BIDEN: You're not going to be able to shut him up.

JOE BIDEN: Donald would you just be quiet for a minute.

CHRIS WALLACE: If I may ask my question, sir.

CHRIS WALLACE: [crosstalk] when I finish I'm going to give an opportunity-

CHRIS WALLACE: You're debating him not me. Let me ask my question.

CHRIS WALLACE: Mr. President, I'm the moderator of this debate and I would like you to let me ask my question and then you can answer.

CHRIS WALLACE: Mr. President, can you let him finish, sir?

JOE BIDEN: No, he doesn't know how to do that.

CHRIS WALLACE: Please let him speak, Mr. President.

CHRIS WALLACE: Gentlemen, you realize if you're both speaking at the same time. Let the President. Go ahead, sir.

CHRIS WALLACE: I understand that, sir. But I have to give you roughly equal time.

CHRIS WALLACE: Please let the Vice President talk, sir.


JOE BIDEN: Will you shut up, man?

CHRIS WALLACE: Gentlemen, I think we've ended this-

JOE BIDEN: This is so un-Presidential.

CHRIS WALLACE: We have ended the segment. We're going to move on to the second segment.

JOE BIDEN: That was really a productive segment, wasn't it? Keep yapping, man.

 And as we know there aren't any undecided voters anyway (the poll figures range from 3% undecided/don't know in the latest Quinnipiac to 11% in NBC/WSJ—but that's not a comparable figure; it's actually 3% saying they're undecided

and 10 or 11% suggesting they are decided but might change their minds, which is a very different question:

And the historical record says (as of 2012) if they're going to change their minds it isn't likely to be the debates that make the difference:

A more careful study by political scientist James Stimson finds little evidence of game changers in the presidential campaigns between 1960 and 2000. Stimson writes, “There is no case where we can trace a substantial shift to the debates.” At best, debates provide a “nudge” in very close elections like 1960,1980, or 2000. A even more comprehensive study, by political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, which includes every publicly available poll from the presidential elections between 1952 and 2008, comes to a similar conclusion: excluding the 1976 election, which saw Carter’s lead drop steadily throughout the fall, “the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.” In other words, in the average election year, you can accurately predict where the race will stand after the debates by knowing the state of the race before the debates. Erikson and Wlezien conclude that evidence of debate effects is “fragile.”

In addition to which, it's always been kind of horrible in the way it trivializes the issues, overvalues the work of people who aren't the candidate and don't even necessarily have any understanding of the issues, from Kennedy's makeup artist to Reagan's gag writer, and takes its real values from the needs of the advertisers for eyeballs during the color commentary by the customary talking heads inevitably talking about "What does X have to do?" in the pre-game and "Did they do it?" afterwards, conditioning the audience to answer the stupid poll question "Who won?"—though what they're actually doing as they watch seems to be something more sophisticated and more interesting:

Though reporters often look for a winner and loser, viewers experience the debate differently, making two simultaneous judgments: One, whether or not the candidate seems “big enough” to be president; and two, whether one of the candidates is a better choice.

On that score, I guess, it was a good night for Biden. Everybody knows at heart that Trump is a worse choice, but his TV bigness, his star quality, an affective property he shares with many successful candidates good and evil, handsome and ugly, Kennedy and Reagan, Johnson and Clinton, Nixon and Obama, has been drowning his opponents ever since he got into the business (which was in 2004, not 2015, because politics really is a branch of show business), and seemed likely to do the same to Biden, whom we've known as so (generously) ready to subordinate himself to a partner since he "went national" in 2008.

Like Reagan, who famously starred as the best friend who doesn't get the girl in so many of his memorable movies, Biden achieved true fame as a second banana, but that's never been the only role he could play, and I've been thinking all year that the pundits who seem him as pallid and poorly defined are very wrong. Glad to see him offering some evidence of that last night, from the very beginning when he stood, slim and vigorously at attention, while tubby Trump leaned, weak-legged, in his ostrich stance. 

Trump's coaches had devised the interrupting strategy in the hope of flustering Biden and making him yell, or if possible stutter, but Biden was better prepared than we in the audience were, and even though he was unable to stop Trump's shenanigans he made it clear that he didn't accept them. It was poor Chris Wallace (who had been telling reporters, "I don't want to be the moderator," meaning he wanted to be an invisible force for good, but ended up sounding as if he really didn't want the job) that looked weak and out of it.

CHRIS WALLACE: We have six segments. We have ended that segment. We're going to go to the next segment. In that segment, you each are going to have two uninterrupted moments. In those two interrupted minutes, Mr. President, you can say anything you want. I'm going to ask a question about race, but if you want to answer about something else, go ahead. But I think that the country would be better served, if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions. I'm appealing to you, sir, to do that.

DONALD TRUMP: Well, and him too.

CHRIS WALLACE: Well, frankly, you've been doing more interrupting than he has.

Trump, consistently childish, but remembering his instructions to jab Biden in the tender spots, ended up instead giving him plenty of opportunity to display his "biggest" quality, not the empathy or emotional identification (which I should say I don't question at all) itself but the ability to communicate it, to arouse our empathy, whether talking about his sons or the 200,000 victims of Trump's failure to deal with Covid-19, and Trump snapping at him in response seemed not just mean but also foolish. Biden didn't sound vulgar when he called Trump a "clown"

JOE BIDEN: Well, it's hard to get any word in with this clown. Excuse me, this person.

but solid and confident, a winner.

I definitely don't think Biden should undermine this success by canceling the remaining debates, but I wish someone would, so I wouldn't feel the need to watch any more. Donald, will you let me be your concern troll?

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