Column: Here’s why you are likely to be disappointed by Tuesday’s presidential debate

John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon shown after their Sept. 26, 1960, debate.
Some analysts say Richard M. Nixon lost the first televised presidential debate, and ultimately the election, to John F. Kennedy because the lights played up Nixon’s five o’clock shadow, making him look haggard and unkempt.
(Associated Press)

Here’s a general rule of thumb: Presidential debates are usually a big waste of time. Tonight’s debate will probably live down to my expectation.

Let’s start at the beginning. The first presidential debate was in 1960 between Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John F. Kennedy. According to lore, Nixon won the debate among radio listeners while the telegenic — and makeup-wearing — Kennedy won with TV viewers. Some question the story, but there’s a reason why it rings true: TV emphasizes appearance over substance.

Whatever the veracity of the Kennedy-Nixon parable, that larger truth is obviously true. George H.W. Bush’s second debate with Bill Clinton is widely remembered as a catastrophe because Bush couldn’t adapt to what was called at the time an “Oprah”- or “Phil Donahue”-style town hall format.

One convoluted question in particular hurt Bush, according to conventional wisdom. Boiled down, it was: “How has the national debt affected you personally?” While struggling to answer, President Bush said, “I’m not sure I get it. Help me with the question and I’ll try to answer it.”


This was an “Aha!” moment that supposedly proved the president was out of touch, not like the loquaciously empathetic “I feel your pain” governor from Little Rock. Add in the fact that at one point the president looked at his watch, and the hostile media was all too eager to proclaim Bush an unfeeling monster, out of touch with real Americans — who apparently never look at their watches.

Everything bad about presidential debates is made worse by the rise of social media, which amplifies gut feelings over critical thinking. I am still trying to figure out what was wrong with Mitt Romney saying in a 2012 debate that he was so eager to fill his gubernatorial administration with excellent female staffers that he reached out to various women’s groups to ask for suggestions. They responded by sending what he described as “binders full of women” candidates (15 pounds of them). People, particularly elite liberal journalists on Twitter, lost their collective minds on social media.

“Mitt Romney’s ‘binders full of women’ comment during the second presidential debate did more than go viral,” the Washington Post reported, “it put women’s issues back in the campaign spotlight.” But why? Because real feminist allies ask women’s groups to submit their lists in manila folders?

Perhaps the biggest problem with presidential debates is that they fuel crappy citizenship by encouraging a key contingent of voters to base voting decisions on how a political infomercial makes them feel. It’s true that most voters don’t pick a candidate based on the presidential debates. But that’s a bit misleading, because the most important and decisive voters at this point in the cycle are undecided or swing voters. Every four years we get interviews with these voters, who invariably say things after a debate like, “I’m not sure, because I didn’t hear enough about education from either of them.” Really? Because a candidate didn’t provide information — easily found on a campaign website or in several thousand news articles — in a contrived debate format, you can’t make up your mind?

According to pollsters, most debates don’t actually matter much. Post-debate bumps and bounces tend to fade quickly. That’s probably bad news for President Trump, who needs to erase his substantial deficit in the polls. That will be tough for him, since he declined to prepare for the debate, and his instinct is usually to entertain voters he already has in his column. Biden has every incentive to debate the way he has campaigned: by staying in the background and letting Trump make the case against himself.

It’s possible Tuesday night will be different, of course. If Joe Biden has a severe senior moment or if Donald Trump goes too far in trying to force one, the precious few undecided voters out there could move in one direction or another.

But the most likely scenario is that these two septuagenarian men, each with long histories of unleashing sentences resembling unmanned firehoses attached to pressurized bovine manure tanks, will confirm what everybody already thinks about them.

Fox News’ Chris Wallace, the able and admirably unbiased moderator, says he doesn’t intend to fact check either candidate, which all but assures us that the hose will spray for the full 90 minutes.

That could be very entertaining or excruciating or both, but it probably won’t change anything. Which is to say, it will be par for the course.