Over the last year or so, we've seen debates that were pretty bad. We've seen a few that were even embarrassingly bad. But at least in this cycle, I'm not sure if we've seen anything quite as train-wreck, cover-your-eyes bad as the spectacle on ABC last night.
What may prove to be the last Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama wasn't just awful on its face, it was hard not to watch wondering if moderator Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos were actually undermining the public discourse with their inanity.
At one point, about 20 minutes or so into the debate, Stephanopoulos seemed to encourage Obama to go after Clinton on the Bosnia/sniper story. Obama not only took a pass, but actually tried to explain that there were more important things to talk about: "I think what's important is to make sure that we don't get so obsessed with gaffes that we lose sight of the fact that this is a defining moment in our history."
It didn't help.
I'm not entirely unsympathetic to Gibson's and Stephanopoulos' challenge. Clinton and Obama agree on most policy issues, so the hosts' task was to focus on areas of disagreement in order to create some kind of television-worthy conflict. Regrettably, that's precisely what Gibson and Stephanopoulos get paid to do.
But the result was as dull as it was pointless, with a discussion that tells us nothing about the candidates, their visions, or their ability to govern. E&P's Greg Mitchell called it "perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years." The Washington Post's Tom Shales called it "step downward for network news," and noted that the moderators delivered "shoddy, despicable performances." Will Bunch noted, "[A] word to any and all of my fellow journalists who happen to read this open letter. This. Must. Stop." Salon's own Walter Shapiro added:
This is the way it ends, not with a bang but a whimper. If Wednesday night's fizzle in Philly was indeed the last debate of the Democratic primary season between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, it will be remembered for, well, not much of anything.
Broadcast to a prime-time network audience on ABC and devoid of a single policy question during its opening 50 minutes, the debate easily could have convinced the uninitiated that American politics has all the substance of a Beavis and Butt-Head marathon.
So, who won? I haven't the foggiest idea, but I'm quite certain we all lost.