Like James, I enjoyed Mark Lawson's column this morning. Then I would, wouldn't I? I've written before about the fatuous desire to graft* American political arrangements onto our own political structure. Lawson is right to suggest that the political and media class's obsession with The West Wing is all rather depressing.
Now, like plenty of other people, I liked the West Wing, even if, in my experience, the more one knew about how Washington actually works the more preposterous the show became. Our pols, however, don't seem to have grasped that it's a fantasy and not to be taken seriously.
In a sense, Aaron Sorkin offered a dangerous fantasy too: promoting the idea that politics is the answer and that good intentions and cleverness will prevail. The Best and the Brightest are enough. Not so.
A couple of minor cavils: the idea of a Presidential-style debate between the party leaders pre-dates the West Wing (which debuted in 1999). Also, I think the American debates have sometimes had more influence than is sometimes recognised. Kennedy vs Nixon in 1960 is perhaps the most famous example of a debate which did have an impact on the election, but even in 2000, Al Gore's erratic performances in the first two debates with George W Bush hurt his chances, while Bush's ability to hold his own - or the perception that he held his own - helped him seem Presidential.
And last year, Sarah Palin's disastrous performance against Joe Biden probably hurt the McCain campaign, while also doing very little to advance her post-election credibility.
So they can matter, even if their importance is more often a matter of confirming underlying trends than in changing the course of the campaign.
*In fairness, there are plenty of Americans who would love to see a US version of Prime Minister's Questions. But that's not going to happen, not least because there's no forum in which it could reasonably take place, nor any reason why the President would ever want to agree to such a format.