Gary Johnson and Jill Stein (AP Images)
The United States does not have presidential debates in any realistic sense of the word.
It holds quadrennial joint appearances by major-party candidates who have been schooled in the art of saying little of consequence in the most absurdly aggressive way. And Americans will be served a full helping this evening, as the travesty that the Commission on Presidential Debates foists on the country every four years begins its latest run.
Much will be said on stage, much more by the punditocracy.
But the likelihood that it will matter is slimmer now than ever. That is because presidential debates have become the political equivalent of a classic rock radio station. You’ll hear all the hits, and maybe even a few obscure tracks that you’d almost forgotten. But the whole point of the Barack Obama’s appearance will be to say nothing that harms himself and everything that harms Mitt Romney, just as the whole point of Romney’s appearance will be to say nothing that harms himself and everything that harms Obama.
Neither man will leave his comfort zone. Neither will jump off the narrow track on which this year’s campaign has been running. The only theater will be provided by a gaffe, and in fairness Mitt Romney has proven to be more adept than any figure since Chevy Chase (playing Gerald Ford) in that department.
But America deserves better than drinking games built around the wait for Mitt to be Mitt.
What would make the debates better?
In most developed nation—from Canada to Britain to France—debates are multi-candidate, multi-party affairs. It is not uncommon for five, six, even seven candidates to take the stage. Those countries do not just survive the clashes, they thrive—with higher levels of political engagement than the United States has seen in decades.
Only the most crudely authoritarian states erect the sort of barriers that the United States maintains to entry into the debates by so-called “minor-party” candidates.