My wife and I watched the debate together last night, from start to finish, the first time we’ve made it all the way through one — of either party’s candidates — without growing bored or frustrated. In fact, as we watched, we remarked to each other (several times) how riveting we found this particular installment in the series, how we just couldn’t bring ourselves to turn or look away.
Admittedly, the reaction of our two-person focus group might have had more to do with theater than substance. In Debate #20, it’s painfully difficult for the candidates to say anything they haven’t said 19 times before, nor are they likely to display some nuance in body language, style, cadence, or tone that they haven’t exhibitted several times prior.
What was new was the environment in which this debate was held, the contextual drama swirling around it. Sen. Obama is no longer the neophyte long-shot but the well-established leader, steadily closing the polling gaps in his rival’s final-stand states. Sen. Clinton is no longer the inevitable veteran but the evolving case study in how to lose a campaign when you have virtually everything going for you. Sure, the pulse of this narrative was evident in the Texas debate last week. But last night — after days of the Clinton campaign hurling accusations that failed to even scratch the Obamamentum — this narrative was no longer a pulse, but a pounding throb, an unmistakable, unignorable tell-tale heart whose beating could not be muffled or muted by the floorboards covering it.
And that beat permeated every exchange, as the cool, collected Senator from Illinois deftly swatted away each volley from the tense, tired, and perplexed Senator from New York. Even after what my wife and I agreed was Obama’s weakest moment — his Farrakhan waffle — he recovered with clarity, strength and grace, a point of view in which we are apparently not alone.
I confess: Two college-educated Americans should probably be more focused on substance than theater, but … what can I say? We’re human, as pedestrian as the next couple in the next home, as susceptible as anyone to the addiction of a good show. Maybe that means those individuals who found this debate a “snooze-fest” are more intellectual than we are, more capable of resisting the allure of the stage’s bright lights and sounds. Good for them. Meanwhile, I’m really looking forward to the next act, the one where the old war hero grapples with the young social activist. Grab the soft drinks; we’ll bring the popcorn.