Why Tonight’s Debate Won’t Matter

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Ronald Lauder stares down unlimited terms.
Ronald Lauder stares down unlimited terms. Photo: Getty Images

This morning pundits were saying that John McCain needs to change the conversation, to change the game, to change anything in order to get his campaign back in gear. His numbers are sliding drastically, and he needs a serious boost. Tonight's debate is the perfect opportunity to do something big. So will the Nashville showdown change everything? We don't think so! It'll be boring, and the media narrative will remain the same. Here are ten reasons why:

10. The ratings will probably be disappointing. The last televised debate drew a record 70 million audience because it starred Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. McCain and Obama's last matchup netted only 52.4 million viewers, and both candidates were cautious and boring — meaning some viewers probably won't come back. After all, The Real Housewives of Atlanta premieres tonight!

9. The fun and spontaneity has been trained out of both candidates. Remember the town-hall days when Obama said he'd meet with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea in the first year of his administration without preconditions? And when McCain said the U.S. should be in Iraq "maybe 100" years? Yeah, those days are over. The best we can hope for is a completely bizarre Hillary Clinton–like non-sequitor where McCain brings up Tony Rezko or William Ayers for no apparent reason. They've got to relate to the economic bailout, right?

8. The media has already decided on the story line of the week. Everybody's being mean to one another! Negative ads! Heels on, gloves off! And if there's squabbling tonight, or if John McCain again refuses to even look at Obama, it'll just blend into that larger narrative. After all, how many times can you utter the phrase "kitchen sink" on MSNBC before the whole channel turns into HGTV?

7. Tom Brokaw, like Gwen Ifill, will have little control over the direction of the conversation. Not only will the questions be coming from "uncommitted voters" tonight, but the five-minute "freewheeling" discussion segment after each two-minute response will mean more of the candidates talking about whatever they want to. And Brokaw isn't known for trying to nail down guests for straight answers on Meet the Press. (Though we can't wait to see whether Saturday Night Live can get squinty Alec Baldwin in a white wig to play Brokaw!)

6. If McCain gets cranky and Obama stays cool, that's already written into the script. Over the last month, Obama's "low blood pressure" has become a talking point for pundits. And McCain's volatile temper is legendary. If Obama wigs out and McCain stays calm, that'd be news — but it won't happen. Picture something more like this — Obama: "I'm cool as a cucumber." McCain: "CUCUMBERS FEED TERRORISTS!"

5. There's no sexual tension. Part of what made the vice-presidential debate so fun was that it didn't seem like Sarah Palin and Joe Biden hated each other. It made it easier on the viewer, whereas Obama and McCain's mutual, palpable hatred will be difficult to watch. And even though none of you agreed with us, we still think there was a little flirtiness going on with the veep candidates. Everybody knows when a girl says, "Say it ain't so, Joe," she means, "drill, baby, drill!"

4. It's a rerun, anyway. McCain needs to spend this debate talking about the economy to restore his cred with voters worried about their finances. That's what the first half of the first debate was about. We've seen this before! And neither candidate had any good answers about the crisis the first time. Meanwhile, The Real Housewives of Atlanta will have rich black ladies. C'mon!

3. Everyone's expecting a McCain stunt. And for that reason, it won't happen. Remember when everyone expected Sarah Palin to fall flat on her face in the last debate, accidentally spearing herself in the left eyeball with her own stiletto that slipped off when she was doing her high kicks? Yeah, that didn't happen. If we've learned anything from this campaign season, it's that expecting the worst is the best way to have your expectations surpassed. McCain isn't desperate enough to try anything crazy. That would just make him look … desperate.

2. Obama has serious momentum in the polls. Oh, yeah. Even if McCain does a brilliant job tonight, it may not matter. People may still talk about the amazing shutout John Maine pitched against the Marlins at the end of last September, but you know what they talk about more? How the Mets spectacularly collapsed in the final leg of the 2007 season.

1. There's no one for Tina Fey to play in this debate. Seriously, that's why people watch these things, right?

Earlier: The Top Ten Excuses Sarah Palin Could Use to Back Out of the Race