Thanks to an accident of planning, I got on a plane in Philadelphia last night around six and landed in Seattle about five and a half hours later. So: No live debate for me. I caught up with a repeat at my hotel.
But here's the thing: In the half-hour or so of furious web-surfing between the time the flight attendant announced it was OK to turn on PDAs and the time I checked into my room, I felt like I'd already experienced it all. All those reactions--From the right! From the left! Can you believe that even Pat Robertson said McCain was mean? Everyone on tinterhooks about which narrative will stick: Will Saturday Night Live mock McCain's contemptuous avoidance of eye contact with his rival? Will the Daily Show tease Obama for his instances of expressing agreement with the Republican? Partisans and prognosticators are in an epic tug-of-war over the most advantageous frame.
I'm hardly the first person to feel like the political campaign has yanked him back into some half-remembered college critical theory class, where the specific contents of the text--whatever that is--have been more or less liberated from the battles over what they mean. What fascinates me about my experiencing this debate as a meta-event is how little it did do dampen the galditorial spectacle. I surfed the comment-sphere with the same anxious apprehension I'd have had if I'd actually been watching the event: Would this guy win? Would the other guy gain traction? The interpretation, and hence the interpretation of the interpretation, seemed all-important as I exited the 757's cone of silence. Far more than what a couple of highly scripted Senators had said an hour earlier in Mississippi.
That's life at the information-saturated edge of the political spectrum, I guess. I'm certainly not watching politics primarily to increase my wisdom in order to exercise the franchise in November, or even to learn something about my country by observing the way we decide on our leaders. Like a lot of us, my primary fascination in consuming political news is in an effort to divine the future, or at least the single portion of the future that plays out on election day. And towards that end, you could argue that the debate is less important than what a bunch of talking heads say after watching it, which is in turn less important than what some SNL writer comes up with after turning off Chris Matthews' postgame wrapup, which is in turn less important than which SNL soundbites some Today producer picks for Monday morning's show, which is in turn less imporrtant than what someone who sees said clip will remember long enough to say to their news-avoiding neighbor across the fence a few days later. By such circuitous routes does an event, and all of us who glom onto it, apparently reach those elusive swing voters. Unless it doesn't.
Fair enough: Influence is a strange thing, and truths get shaped at all kinds of points along the way. But the limited relevance of the actual debate compared to the hugely contentious and often random way it is interpreted and manipulated--well, it puts all that civics-class chatter about the hallowed importance of political debates into a certain relief. (Also, it makes my brain hurt).