Monday, September 26, 2016

unleash the flying monkeys

I am not going to watch the presidential "debates" tonight.

I have better things to do with my time -- like savoring a supper of beef wellington with friends at Magnolia's.

My boycott is not new. I suspect the last presidential debate I watched in full was in 1992 when the country watched Michael Dukakis melt into lawyerly irrelevance when asked the question: "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"

It was that moment that I realized the presidential debates were not debates, at all. They were sadistic job interviews interlaced with entertainment moments of "gotcha."

The holy grail of debates, of course, is the first one -- the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate. Even it, though, was not a debate. It was a very structured joint news conference.

A true debate, at least in the Lincoln-Douglas tradition, would be shorn of its moderator and interview panel, and the two participants would have time to develop their points and pointedly interrogate each other.

And no television station would touch it with a 10-foot pole. Because it would be all about logical, serious policy. What entertainment would there be in that?

In theory, if the debates were a basketball game, a 3-pointer would go something like this: "Mr. Trump, I am glad you asked me that question. Yes, I do have a plan for putting America back to work. No plan will work unless it is politically possible and offers our citizens the opportunity for a better tomorrow. Let me explain. My plan has 27 political objectives and 32 economic goals."

But, that is not how you score points in presidential debates. Not only would the potential voters have stopped listening with the appearance of two digit numbers, it is not what they want from their candidates.

What they want is the equivalent of an elbow to the ribs or a stiletto across the carotid. Something like this:

"Mr. Trump, if America is no longer working, it is because of old, white men like you who have robbed the rest of us of our wages, our time, our hearts, and our future. I know what it is to be dirt poor.
As God is my witness, as God is my witness you're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again."

I would now like to confess that is an unfair caricature. But, it isn't. Just think for a moment about presidential debates in the past. What is it that we remember? What is it that had us talking the next day when we discussed the debates -- in that glorious day when friends could actually talk about politics without the risk of permanently rupturing relationships?

Here are just a few oldies, but goldies:

  • In 1976, President Ford declared the captive nations of eastern Europe to be free of Soviet domination -- even when the moderator gave him the opportunity to clarify his answer. "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration."
  • In 1980, Governor Reagan's easy going manner unnerved President Carter with his "There you go, again" leaving Carter looking like an old-fashioned fibber.
  • Of course, that was just after President Carter left everyone wondering if he had spent too much time alone in the White House when he told us about discussing nuclear policy with his young daughter -- while geese flew over the White House.
  • Walter Mondale deserves a place on the list for his response to Gary Hart, then known as the innovative new kid on the block, in the 1984 Democrat debates: "When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad, 'Where's the beef?'" Well, he was from Minnesota.
  • Mondale ended up on the receiving end of another memorable quip in 1984. To disarm the age issue that was begin to pester him, President Reagan, with that Irish twinkle in his eye that always telegraphed a zinger was on the way, looked straight into the television camera, and said: "I want you to know also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." Mondale, to his great credit, enjoyed the joke as much as anyone in the audience.
  • In the 1988 vice-presidential debates, Dan Quayle defended his perceived callowness: "I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency." A much older Lloyd Bentsen responded with the only memorable line from that debate: "I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
They are classics all. And I suspect those scenes are the reason presidential debates continue. After all, without reaching for your smartphone, what was the first question asked of Vice-President Bush after Dukakis's crash and burn? Who really cares? It was nowhere near as entertaining. We remember the fun stuff.

And that brings us to what these debates are all about. If the polls are anywhere near accurate (and I have my doubts that they are -- based on the experience with several pollsters during the primaries), 95 to 98% of potential voters have already made up their minds on which of the two most unpopular and distrusted candidates in this nation's history they are going to support.

Some of those voters are soft. It may be fair to say most of them are not voting for a candidate, they are voting against the other guy (or gal). So, there are only a few potential votes to move there.

But think about that. After all of the campaigning that has gone on. After all of the attack ads. After all of the diatribes. After all of the concerns about the age and health of both candidates. How can anyone still be undecided? Well, I guess those with weak stomachs. (I, for instance, decided two weeks ago. But, my vote is going to be my own dirty little secret.)

The reality, though, is even more mundane. Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump will be trying to persuade a handful of voters. And not even the 2 to 5% of undecided voters nationally. If you are an undecided voter in Texas or New York, the presidential results in your state have effectively been cast.

Instead, it will be a much smaller group at stake in the ten states where the results are too close to call (and most of those states are leaning strongly to one candidate or the other): Nevada, Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire. One of the major survey compilers (the one usually relied upon by the left) this morning had the electoral college count so close that if New Hampshire's 4 votes slipped from the Clinton to the Trump column, Donald Trump would be president.

So, all of us will be forced to listen to the drone of hours of meaningless rhetoric -- all in the service of trying to convince Bob and Mary Yankee, who live in a subdivision outside Concord, but who have never heard of Hillary or Donald, that they need to put down their latest edition of The American Rifleman and stop watching Madam Secretary long enough to pick out the sole quip from the debates that will determine who will be the next president of these United States.

I just said "all of us will be forced." Of course, not Mexpatriate. I have a plate of beef wellington waiting for me in La Manzanilla. And I will be the better for it.

Of course, if Mrs. Clinton actually does forget herself and yells "unleash the flying monkeys," I will have missed another defining moment of the making of the president 2016.

Teddy White must be weeping somewhere.

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