In the afternoon following the final debate of the 2012 Presidential election cycle, we can say three things for certain.
The first is that this final confrontation between the President and his challenger probably didn’t mean much. Despite debate insta-polls that showed undecided viewing audiences giving the President a definitive win, and despite the next day’s Gallup average ticking up one(!) point in his favor, the likelihood is that the trajectory of this race remains unchanged. Stacked against the National League Championship Series and Monday Night Football, it’s arguable that even the total rhetorical destruction of one candidate or the other wouldn’t be enough to matter. We will know how and whether polling trends change in the coming few days, as longer-term reaction and subsequent narratives have their effect: but it is improbable that the course alters much.
To put it differently, it’s still a race to the finish.
The second is that even with an Obama win, the overall cycle of three debates has been exceptionally good for Mitt Romney. Accepting the back-of-envelope scoring from the President’s partisans, we may oversimplify and say that the challenger won the first, and lost the subsequent two. That’s the Democrat-partisan view, as advanced in spin rooms from Denver to Long Island to Boca Raton, and it’s useful to note because it highlights how much the individual-debate outcomes don’t really matter. What matters is this: before the debates, Mitt Romney was defined in the public eye by his opponent — and after the debates, Mitt Romney is defined in the public eye by Mitt Romney. That’s quite nearly the only thing that matters: and the Romney polling surge of the past month only affirms it.
The third and final thing we can say for certain at the close of this cycle’s debates is how badly our system of Presidential debates is broken. Far from illuminating the issues and qualities that matter in our candidates, the present system of debates has mostly served as a mechanism for dispensing chaff into the public square. From Gardasil to Big Bird to bayonets, our debates have obscured more than clarified — and worse, they’ve done it through the lens of a media establishment that is poorly equipped to serve the public interest. This was rendered most stark in the ludicrous Republican-primary debate series, in which American conservatives watched their aspirants vetted by liberal-media figures who did not share their values or priorities. The general-election debates too were marred by somnolent (Lehrer), biased (Raddatz), and error-prone (Crowley) moderators, with only Bob Schieffer yesterday evening turning in a competent performance.
One question Americans of all partisan stripes ought to be asking themselves now is why, if Lincoln and Douglas needed no moderators, our present-day candidates do.
Finally, the content of last night’s debate was both apt and awful. In its prevailing focus upon trade, the Middle East, and war, it reflected the foreign-policy priorities of the American electorate, inasmuch as that electorate — presumably voting mostly on economic grounds this year — has those priorities. Yet what it ignored was telling, and alarming. The European monetary crisis, the tottering “Bolivarian” movement, the Chinese aggression in the western Pacific, the slow disintegration of the South African social compact: all these things were absent. Most notably, the nation that sit across our southern border, Mexico, received no meaningful attention — despite a de facto civil war that has claimed more Mexican lives than America lost in Vietnam. If 60,000 dead within a day’s drive of San Diego, Tucson, El Paso, and Brownsville doesn’t seize a would-be President’s attention, it is difficult to imagine what will.
The silver lining is that a campaign debate isn’t the same thing as an agenda for governance. The pity is that we must await the governance to find out what that agenda is.
Joshua Treviño is the Vice President for External Relations at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, Texas.