Conor: I appreciate your idealism, but I assure you after spending the last six years covering campaign events–many, if not most, townhall-type interactions–your faith (and Fallows’) in politically active “ordinary citizens”–an important distinction from, you know, actual ordinary citizens, my trailer park brethren, etc.–is severely misplaced. In their absolute very best moments, most of what “real people” ask at political events is at least as stupid as what a television journalist would ask, and usually more so, since they end up trying to ape whatever the simplistic forumlation of the issue of the day has been. Virtually everyone plays to type and asks precisely the question you would suspect they would, to the point where the rare deviation from the invisible script is shocking. The idea that anything comparable to Charlie Gibson pressing Obama on the fact that revenues increase when capital gains taxes are reduced–an actual public service–or the average episode of Hardball happens in the vast majority of these forums is pure wishful thinking.
As far as The People being turned off by such a mean, nasty debate–that’s not happening either. Complaints about the debate having nothing to do with a burning desire for substance–to believe Obama is a post-partisan politician of substance is merely to naively take his word for it–but, rather, concerns over how one’s candidate was wronged or disadvantaged by the debate. These kind of holier-than-thou complaints are part of the horse race, in other words. I’ve seen no evidence out in the “real world” that the sort of “real people” who follow politics this far out from the general election are any more interested in thoughtful discussions on the issues that effect them any more than they really care about the relative merits of whatever regional football collective they cheer on. Oh, sure, ask anyone and they’ll tell you they can’t stand the fluffy debates and abhor negative campaigning, but it’s always only in the context of wanting people who think differently than they do to simply yield.
(How many Democrats do you think you’ll find taking umbrage at Obama’s insistent, conscious misquoting of McCain? And don’t make me laugh about Drug War questions. The Democratic candidates were asked about marijuana decriminilzation back along and even on that mildest of reforms the major candidates refused to budge–including Obama, whose position has apparently changed. )
Hence, the focus entirely on the presidential race rather than local and state level races–these complainers are looking for a potent ubermensch (or menschette) to vanquish and impose, not debate intricacies or details.