The words “audience member” must appear 20 times in this much blogged-about agreement between the campaigns regarding tonight’s “town hall” debate, and every time it’s with a horrified subtextual shudder. Dave Weigel calls the document “gaffe-preventing wimpery.” There are rules about the coin-toss determining stage position, rules about the decision-making process for the backdrop, rules about possible elements of surprise I had never considered, like a secret note-cam that would, in a better world, reveal whatever Romney doodles as Obama explores the many sonic possibilities of the word “and.” There is an extensive contingency plan for dealing with any audience member who goes rogue by asking a question not previously approved or asking a follow-up question to a question that was previously approved. Audience members will be instructed “not to applaud, speak or otherwise participate by any means other than by silent participation,” which is an interesting use of the word “participation.” When you watch Obama and Romney shake hands after simultaneously approaching the stage this evening, know that this handshake is mandated in section 9, subsection a, sub-subsection iii of the agreement.
Debates are something like spelling bees in that they’re displays of a skill set marginally relevant to the quality supposedly being assessed. Spelling well does not mark you as intelligent, and being quick with a comeback does not mark you as fit to send a country to war. The memorandum of understanding suggests that neither Obama nor Romney think themselves particularly adept at the skill debates happen to measure. They’re thus vulnerable to the hordes of bored journalists waiting for a mistake upon which to seize, such that those journalists can give the partisan public something on which to confirm their biases about the other party. Perhaps, then, we get the debates we deserve.
In light of this document and the Obama/Romney tussle two weeks back, “debate” is probably too elevated a word for what we’ll be seeing tonight. There will be a series of alternating speeches. The element of surprise for the candidates will be in what order Candy Crowley requests that these speeches be delivered. What arises from this 21-page document is a vision of what an exchange unregulated by agreements and unconstrained by tradition might look like. In that debate, Obama could stand on a little step-stool to look taller, which is here prohibited on page 15, and Romney might show up with a large array of unexpected props, here prohibited on page three. Rogue cameramen could stumble into the pre-debate campaign coaching sessions; audience members would fight amongst themselves; candidates might start a call-and-response with the people seated before them. It would, at the very least, be better television.