Tuned In

Debate Liveblog III: Townhall Without Pity

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Karen Tumulty, Michael Grunwald and I will be liveblogging tonight’s debate again at the usual address. Learn it, bookmark it, live it.

As you know, tonight’s debate will be a townhall, a format that allows for back-and-forth with voters, intermingling among candidates and questioners, and freewheeling exchanges. Oh, actually: it will allow for none of those!

By agreement of the two campaigns, there are to be no followups. No reaction shots of audience questioners. (This last, presumably, is to avoid a repeat of the 1992 townhall, in which Bill Clinton scored a coup by addressing a woman who had asked how the economy personally had affected each candidate. George H. W. Bush rather snippily asked if she was implying that because he was “of means,” he couldn’t understand people’s problems. Clinton walked up to her, answered empathetically, and tens of millions of viewers saw her not her head in agreement. In the upcoming documentary Return of the War Room—airing on Sundance next Monday—Frank Luntz says this moment of affirmation was a turning point.)

Also, Obama and McCain will be forbidden to ask each other direct questions, and will be confined, zoo-animal-like, to “designated areas” onstage. (I hope they’ll be fitted with ankle bracelets that will shock them if they cross the barrier.)

In short, all steps have been taken, in the name of democracy, to ensure nothing interesting happens. Enjoy the debate!

Update: Ben Smith reports that Tom Brokaw was not informed that follow-ups are forbidden, and plans to ask them anyway. Thus foiling the candidates’ efforts to “speak directly to the American people,” by refusing to answer their questions if necessary.