There was a Republican debate on Fox News last night. (Insert how-was-that-different-from-any-other-night joke here.) I watched only part of it, so I don’t have a rundown, but I have been watching (and reading) some of the morning-after analysis, which is not much different from most morning-after analysis of most debates. Much of it has been along the lines of the standard formulation: “No one scored a knockout blow against [name of frontrunner here],” the frontrunners in this case being John McCain and Mike Huckabee, depending which poll you subscribe to.
That’s the standard formulation you use to analyze a debate when you are terrified of being wrong, yet feel obligated to offer a prediction anyway. It’s usually safe, because people rarely do score knockout punches in debates–given how facile and defanged most TV debates are–and when they do, often we don’t know who did or how until the votes are counted. And we may not know even afterward. Take the Democratic debate last weekend in New Hampshire. When Hillary Clinton vociferously defended her experience, it was an “angry” episode that damaged her. Or it wasn’t. Maybe it was a forceful moment that won her the primary. If so, clearly most of the post-debate analysis, focus groups and report cards missed it.
The point is, shouldn’t that episode have taught us that pundits have no idea who “won” a debate once it’s over? More important, why do we value political commentators for their ability to accurately predict elections in the first place? Unless you have money riding on the election, that’s meaningless. Political campaigns need analysts to predict the future; news viewers, though, are better served when analysts dissect what the candidates did and didn’t answer, and how their answers might be important. (It’s probably true that a lot of viewers watch political news because they’re hoping to find out what will happen before it happens, but even if that’s so, it’s no excuse.)
And yet the debate-analysis this morning clearly shows the media has learned nothing. “Was there a winner last night?” Can we ban that question, please?