Don't Let the Debate Discourse Distract You

People watch the CNN presidential debate between U.S. President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump at a debate watch party at The Continental Club on June 27, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. Credit - Mario Tama—Getty Images

Debates are a test of candidates; post debates are a test of everyone else. As much as anything, we are about to experience an especially high stakes assessment of our collective attention spans.

For the political press, the coverage of Thursday’s debate reflects both of the reality of the event and the force fields of our politics. However many people made it through the entire painful 90 minutes, everyone will see some of it: there is no hiding from the posts and reels and supercuts spinning the various threads of the evening into tight cords of conviction about who won, who lost, and what it all means.

Stories matter. We get ratings and focus groups, poll results and donation stats, but numbers are bloodless compared to stories. Facts may speak for themselves, but stories sing. So what will be the tenor and tune of the coming days?

If the stories focus on Democratic panic, solemn columnists calling on Joe Biden to step aside, White House sources saying he won’t, spooked office holders offering shivery blind quotes, donors looking to hedge their bets, then the subtext is that Biden was damaged, his odds of winning sank and the next four months just got a lot harder for Democrats. The subtext is that it’s too late to change course, so the only question is how ugly this might all get and can Biden’s candidacy be saved.

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But if the next tranche of stories looks beyond the bonfire to the eternal favorite fantasy of political reporters—the open convention, in Chicago of all places—then the subtext is very different: that this is not a done deal, some Deus ex Machina delegation appeals to Biden’s record of service and patriotism to persuade him to stand down. Let 1000 stories bloom, one part explanation for every 100 parts speculation: how would this work, who are the delegates anyway, who could win them over, how would other potential candidates calculate their odds, are there any king-or-queenmakers left in Democratic politics, would this rupture the already fragile coalition committed to defeating Donald Trump or would it cement it?

And that’s the other point: 350 words into this column before mentioning the Candidate who Blots Out the Sun. If our collective attention span is supple enough that days go by with sustained focus on the Debate Debacle, then we could be looking at countless stories from the political multiverse, where the Democratic nomination and thus the race and the future of the country is up for grabs.

Read More: Trump’s Debate Strategy: Let Biden Bury Himself

Storylines have a way of taking on a life of their own, creating new force fields and self fulfilling prophecies. Donald Trump, long an entertainer and salesman before becoming a pol, understands this and his instinct was on full display Thursday night. He’s the Grand Master of the Illusory Truth Effect, which holds that people are more likely to believe something, true or not, if they hear it over and over again.  His lies become so familiar that to many, they become true, and to others, they at least cease to be news.

If the discussion in the coming days is over damage control and how the Biden campaign hopes to reset the debate, then the subtext is that nothing fundamental about this race has changed. But if the energy and focus of coverage is on what options exist, who has the power to shape outcomes, how nomination rules actually work and what a post-Biden party looks like, not in 2028 but in 2024, then it will be just the latest reminder that in our current information environment, the old rules don’t apply, and the greatest power resides with those who best tell the story of the future we want to see.

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