Presidential campaigns are festivals of pseudo-events. The main dialogue comes in the form of highly scripted and tested 30 second TV ads. Those are buttressed by stage managed rallies. And most of the momentum builds toward conventions which are now professionally staged partisan informercials.
Don’t get me wrong. Politics has always been deeply, highly staged. It’s always been thus. And if you’re into politics that’s part of what you love. The confetti doesn’t come falling down by accident. Who would think it would? But the big October debates remain the one big exception.
It’s true — and very important to keep in mind in the build-up to tonight — that recent history shows few if any examples where the debates changed the fundamental dynamic of the race. And what I mean by that is, you go into the debates with this person ahead and on the other side the other person is in the lead.
But the thing about the debates is that you just can not really script them. You can prep and they endlessly do prep. But there are too many variables out of your control — most notably you’ve got your actual opponent up there with you on the stage who wants more than anything to beat you. And he or she simply wouldn’t have gotten to that stage if they were not a formidable opponent.
It’s the political equivalent of high stakes testing and there’s probably an argument that what that generates isn’t necessarily the best evidence about who would be a good president. But inevitably you do see some aspects of the person that just don’t come through anywhere else.
Inevitably, the stakes are higher for the challenger or any non-incumbent. We’re not really looking for evidence about what Barack Obama would be like as president. We know what he’s like as president, for better or worse. It’s different altogether for the challenger.
Of course, we will be bringing you live coverage right here at TPM — live-blogging, reported coverage, quick grabs of key video. The whole thing. I hope you’ll join us.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.