What this reveals about the nature of televised presidential debates these days is that they really have no substance, and that even if they did, it probably wouldn't matter. Jason Kuznicki gets it right when he says that the debates are "entirely bloodless, but then he goes astray when he writes:
And that's the problem. We look to debates to tell us about the character of the candidates, to give us a glimpse inside their heads. And what we get is more of the same recycled soundbites that we can already get by listening to their stump speeches.
Jason's "we" must refer to some group other than the general public. It's probably true that most people who haven't already decided which of the two candidates they prefer look to debates to get a better idea of their character, but I'm not sure those people feel like they're not getting a "glimpse inside their heads." Most of these people are not at all interested in a substantive debate on the issues. It's unlikely they would understand such a debate anyway. What they are looking for is their own version of a presidential appearance and manner. Seeing the two candidates side by side, so that they can make an easy comparison, makes the debates an easy source of just this kind of information. It's been that way since debates began to be televised. In 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon participated in the first televised presidential debate, Nixon lost, not because his arguments were defeated by Kennedy's, but because Kennedy was a confident, handsome young man. In other words, Kennedy won because he was more photogenic, and played to the camera better than Nixon. Nixon looked awkward and uncomfortable, and many took that to be the glimpse of what's inside his head, or the indication of his character, that they were looking for. It didn't matter what he said, or what Kennedy said. It only mattered that he did, or did not, look presidential when he said it.
The reason that presidential debates have become meaningless infomercials, and that both Kerry and Bush are trying so hard to make the other look like the better debater, is that the campaigns, and the networks broadcasting the debates, are giving the viewers what they want -- live campaign ads. All the pre-debate maneuvering and in-debate scripted soundbites are just good marketing. After all, that's what campaigning is these days. If the candidates actually spent an hour or two mired in detailed discussions of the issues, no one would watch. CSPAN would be the only network to broadcast the debates, and a few intellectual bloggers would comment on them, with those on the right believing Bush had won in a route, and those on the left thinking Kerry had blown Bush out of the water. Undecided and wavering voters, the only people the campaigns care about by September, would read the page 7 headlines about the debates in their local paper, and judge the candidates by their pre-recorded ads.
The problem, then, is not that the debates are bloodless. The problem is that bloodless debates are what people want. Sure, most people like a little blood now and then. There's a whole segment of the population that would love to see presidential debates that resembled pre-fight WWF shouting matches, but if blood's going to be drawn, it has to be in the done in the form of short, memorable quips, such as, ""I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. But I can tell you one thing, Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy!" Can you imagine if Benson had said, "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. But I can tell you one thing, Senator, your social policies deviate from Kennedy's in several important ways, including..." followed by a lengthy discussion of the differences between Kennedy's policies Quayle's? No one would even remember Benson had been in a debate*.
* Do you remember the context of Benson's remark? Chances are you don't, and I will bet you that the average person who does remember this remark, doesn't remember the context. Quayle had claimed that he was as experienced as Kennedy was when he was elected. The point, however, is that the context doesn't matter. The quip, the soundbite, is what people remember. It was a burn, and you don't even need the context to see that.