Debate Recap: Well, That Was Anticlimactic

Usually, it’s the process questions that produce sparks atdebates. Networks rely on questions about flag pins, VP picks, and radicalhippie friends, because they reveal differences in character rather thanpolicy. So in a primary like this one, where there aren’t many discernible policydifferences (besides social security payroll taxes, obviously), processquestions are the choice du jour if you want some made-for-TV fireworks.

The problem is, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton went for the bait. Unsurprisingly, bothcandidates said the other could beat John McCain. Both said the Democratic Partywould unite around the nominee. Both delivered stump-speech pitches tohypothetical superdelegates at the end of the debate.

Even when things had the potential to get dicey, they simmered down quickly. Obama explained away his”bitter” remarks, and Clinton saidshe merely called his comments elitist—not Obama himself. Clintonstarted to get huffy puffy about Rev. Wright, but Obama reiterated the samedefense that helped him wriggle out of the ordeal in the first place. On Clinton’sBosnia misspeak,Obama was somnambulant while he hoped Clintontripped herself up trying to explain the gaffe away.

But after the first hour, ABC seemed to run out of process questions and hadto turn to (sigh) policy. It wasn’t until 9:04 p.m. that a question was asked about the economy—theissue that half of all Pennsylvanians care about most ( PDF ). Oncewe finally got around to hashing out the issues, we lingered on an obscurestipulation involving old people, tax ceilings, and a bunch of stuff theAmerican people—and, to be honest, your humble blogger—doesn’t fullyunderstand. Iraqwas barely touched, and when it was, neither moderator pushed Obama on SamanthaPower’s comments that he wouldn’t actually pull out troops if the generals toldhim not to. Fringe(ish) issues like gun control and affirmative action were raised instead of the heartier (and, frankly, more pressing) issues mentioned above. Theclimate crisis once again took a back seat, even though a question was askedon rising gas prices. Last time we checked, they’re sort of intertwined.

ABC should have realized its mistake before Charlie andGeorge sat down in front of those wooden lecterns. As they reminded us, it’sbeen five weeks since the last primaries, six since the last debate. Sincethen, all we’ve heard are process stories—Rev. Wright, Bosnia, and small-townembitterment. Those issues were hashed out beyond the debate floor, and it wastime to turn the attention back to policy. Debate after debate, the candidateshave shown they’re more comfortable debating policy than process. The moderators should have followed suit. Sure,policy questions don’t lead to fireworks—butat least you don’t get duds like tonight.