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All talk, no action

October 10, 2006

DEBATE? WHAT DEBATE? The Dodgers were playing, for Pete's sake (granted, not very well). Plus, it was a Saturday night, when hardly anyone watches TV anyway. Who would schedule a debate for a time when nobody would watch, unless they didn't want you to see it?

Exactly. No one wanted you to see the debate between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and challenger Phil Angelides, except for maybe Angelides. It was a ho-hum affair in the midst of a ho-hum campaign for an office that is monumentally important but for which relatively few people will vote. For Schwarzenegger, it came down to "Angelides likes taxes." For Angelides, it was "Schwarzenegger likes Bush." And that was pretty much it.

Political debates have long been more about theater than substance, and they are a notoriously poor opportunity for viewers to bone up on the issues or delve deeply into policy. They are stage-managed affairs, full of well-rehearsed quips and zingers that the candidates try to make seem spontaneous. No one is ever swayed by a policy point uttered in a debate, although experts talk endlessly afterward about whether a candidate's performance might have impressed some mythical typical voter watching intently from the sofa.

But until now, debates at least held some practical and ritual significance. They were a way of separating the political nerds, who had been paying close attention anyway, from the vast majority of voters, who zero in on the campaign only when necessary. The subtext of debate night has typically been: For those of you who haven't paid attention until now, election season has begun and it's time for you to learn who the candidates are. So here they are. Here's how they look and act. Check them out and see if any of them strike you as leaders.

Recently, though, political debates have aimed for a lower profile. Campaign managers and political consultants like working with a relatively small and predictable population of voters. Through focus groups, demographic studies and voting statistics, the professionals know how these voters act and what to do to get their support. The last thing campaign honchos need is a huge and unmanageable TV audience hanging on every word and thinking that maybe they, too, just might go to the polls on election day. So we get a lackluster debate like Saturday's, scheduled for the smallest possible exposure, in which the unspoken message from the political establishment is "Just stay home."

The worst part of it is that the political professionals know how to dumb down the elections and keep us at home, and they know how to make that work for their candidates. Too bad it doesn't work so well for the rest of us.

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