Was that debate awful or what?
I'm not just talking about how boring it was. (It wasn't exciting, but it wasn't as bad as the first debate.) I'm talking about how it failed to provide a serious contrast between the candidates in their foreign policies, and how moderator Bob Schieffer wasn't able to hold the candidates to task and repeatedly allowed them to go off-topic. Most significantly, this debate embodied the criticism of the presidential debates as tools of the major parties to advance their own narratives, rather than an actual interrogation of the candidates based on the concerns of the electorate.
This isn't to say all the debates were guilty of this; this one stands alone. And in large part, that's because of Schieffer. Schieffer will get mocked for his "Obama bin Laden" slip-up, but that harmless mistake obscures just how badly he handled this debate. He repeatedly allowed the candidates to revert back to mundane talking points rather than asking follow up questions to push the discussion further. He allowed the candidates to focus on domestic issues, moving far off-topic from the original questions he posed. And of those questions, not one of them mentioned Obama's use of drones in Pakistan and Yemen, Guantanamo Bay, or the National Defense Authorization Act. He failed as both a moderator and inquisitor, and if we take nothing else from the format of these debates, it's that the moderators need to distant themselves from the narratives of the two parties and that — judging from the performances this year — they should be women.
So yeah, Obama won. It wasn't all that close, either. But to be more accurate, Mitt Romney lost. Yes, Obama did a consistently better job of articulating his positions and accomplishments — although the latter's a given, since he's the only candidate who possesses any — but Romney failed to contrast himself with the candidate. In the few moments he attempted to, Obama shot him down with his wit. "Bayonets and horses" might be the next "binders full of women." (Then again, I think this debate is meme'd out right now, so maybe not.) Once he pulled the "I killed Bin Laden to help a little girl sleep at night" card, the debate was pretty much sealed.
But in large part, the reason why Romney failed to contrast himself with Obama is because there isn't much to contrast between the two. Their differences lie in their domestic policy, and perhaps that's why both candidates kept going back to that, even though it was just a retread of information we've already heard in the last two debates. This debate failed to really illuminate anything new about either candidate; Obama just did a better job articulating his policies.
And that's the big problem with the debate: we didn't learn anything from it. We were simply treated to talking points, accomplishments, and how each candidate will do similar things regarding Syria, Iran, China, and Pakistan. What about global warming? What about the NDAA? Guantanamo Bay? Obama's drone war that kills 49 innocent civilians for every terrorist? None of it was mentioned. Now, maybe the candidates had similar positions on these issues as well. But we'll never know, because these questions - the hard questions - were never asked. That's convenient for the candidates, and you can't blame either for preferring they not be asked. But the job of the moderator — and the media as a whole — is to get an answer out of them anyway, to inform the electorate.
Tonight, this debate failed to do that.
Check out my blow-by-blow of this trainwreck as it unfolded live.