I didn't watch the Walker-Burke debate last week. I'd like to say it's because I have an active social life and was out partying on a Friday night; in reality, I just didn't want to -- I didn't need to.
Does this affect my pundit cred? Am I earning blogger demerit points somewhere? Is my Klout score falling? I don't much care.
There are really only two reasons nowadays to watch a televised political debate all the way through:
- You've just awoken from a coma, and you not only have no idea who the candidates are, let alone their positions, you also were hit by that bus before they invented the internet and you have no idea how to Google. Or...
- You're hoping for a gaffe, finger on the DVR remote.
That may not be fair, when I think about it. It may be that some people genuinely reserve judgment on the candidates until they can watch the way they interact, the way their faces look when they offer an answer. Or people are looking for a personal story and gut-level connection that might move or surprise them. I suppose that can happen.
But the fact remains that we live in an age in which at any level above the proverbial dogcatcher, "candidate" is a product. It is molded and crafted in a sterile factory environment and polished to a high shine before being released into the market where, it is hoped, more people will buy it than the competing product. And everything you need to know about the candidate can be learned anywhere.
Indeed, you don't even need to get too deep into the information about the particular model candidate you're thinking about voting for -- simply knowing the make is enough, Republican or Democrat. There's some variation -- the Tea Party Republican is a new and more volatile offshoot, kind of like New Coke, for example. But still, you know the basics of what you're going to get by looking at the single letter, R or D.
Whether or not a candidate actually fully subscribes to everything about the Republican or Democratic brand, people will just assume they're the whole package. Take the U.S. Senate campaign right now in Kentucky. Alison Lundergan Grimes is a very, very conservative Democrat, taking positions well to the right of the national party on any number of issues. She isn't doing herself any favors by refusing to say whether she voted for Barack Obama -- which is the "gaffe" that has perhaps made her name sound familiar to you.
But it wouldn't matter if she said no outright to the question. The Republican campaign against her is tying her to Obama's positions anyway, even when she explicitly deviates from the platform.
On the other side, that's less of a problem. The Republican party tends not to run liberal candidates, though in tough primaries, like the one lost earlier this year by sitting House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Tea Party challengers can and do suggest that any vague gestures in the direction of compromise or, you know, actual governance, are roughly the equivalent of getting a tattoo of Karl Marx with a heart around it.
But those are all exceptions proving the rule. Most incumbents don't lose. Most Democrats and Republicans don't veer far from the party line. Watching a debate doesn't give you anything you can't figure out from knowing what party a candidate represents.
In Wisconsin, especially, this is true. Using data from Marquette University Law School polls, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's "Wisconsin Voter" project that Scott Walker's approval rating among Republicans is a staggering 92 percent. Among Democrats, it's just 9 percent. The effect of any kind of potential crossover voting in the election next month is going to be microscopic.
Of note: Those who call themselves independent are equally divided, but studies by other national pollsters suggest that there are few true "independents" -- most people, even if they eschew a party label, regularly vote for just one of the two parties, and almost never for Libertarians or Greens or Pirates.
So that just leaves reason number two for watching a debate -- waiting on a gaffe.
But let's be real about that, too. Gaffe-seeking ranks just above "stop hitting yourself" on the childishness scale, doesn't it?
Now, there are times when a "gaffe" does reveal something about a candidate we didn't know but should have, like Alison Lundergan Grimes' inability to say yes or no, or, in the last U.S. Senate cycle, Todd Aiken's bizarre belief in "legitimate rape."
Those gaffes, however, came not in debates, but in press interviews. As much as a candidate is a carefully crafted product, debates are equally crafted. If there's a gaffe to be made, it's not likely to happen in a debate for which the candidate has memorized more lines than Helen Mirren.
And even if there is a misstep, it'll be on YouTube about six seconds after it happens, and in a TV ad the next morning. You miss nothing by not watching live.
That being said, I did skim the transcript of last Friday's debate. Knowing that the candidate-at-debate is a package and a product, it was revealing then to read Walker's line about how Wisconsin doesn't have a "jobs problem." That sounded pretty clearly like a rehearsed line.
Someone must have told Walker that was a persuasive line, even though the data suggest, and have suggested since he took office, that Walker's Wisconsin lags the country and the region in job creation. And you know what? A two-second search told me I could watch that specific clip if I wanted -- no need to waste 90 minutes of my Friday night.
But the biggest thing to me about that line is the way it proves how useless debates are. The line, that "Wisconsin doesn't have a jobs problem, we have a work problem," came in response to a question about the minimum wage. Walker never did answer the minimum wage question, whether it's a livable wage and, if not, what it should be raised to. If you were watching the debate hoping to learn Walker's position the minimum wage, you were out of luck.
In a sense, Walker succeeded there where Grimes failed. He had a canned response to a question he didn't want to answer, rather than a lot of hemming, hawing and dodging. Does that make him more qualified to be governor of Wisconsin than Grimes is to be the junior senator from Kentucky?
I am guessing Republicans say yes. Democrats say no. And you don't need to watch a debate to figure that out.