Skip links

The Debate Debate

The candidates’ representatives are hard at work debating the debates–how many there should be, the topics, the conditions, and all the rest. In this hyper-partisan year, every detail will be fought over, even though little of it will matter in the end.

Debates do matter, however, and perhaps more so in a macro-issue year like this. Voters are unsettled to varying degrees about the incumbent, but they haven’t been sold on the challenger’s alternatives, either. We assume the candidates will get beyond comparing war records from Vietnam and discuss seriously the things voters care most about: the war on terror, Iraq, jobs and the economy, health care, education, etc. Cynics may not believe it, but the candidates are very likely to be exceptionally substantive and policy oriented. The proof? Previous presidential debates in the TV age (1960, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, and 2000). We challenge you to review the tapes and the transcripts. Sure, there are plenty of canned sound bites, but the presidential nominees usually grappled–really grappled–with the pressing issues of the day. Moreover, there was almost always a revealing moment or two, unscripted and unexpected, that told voters something important about the candidates.

Those aforementioned cynics will no doubt point to the silliness of many debates’ headlines: Gerald Ford’s verbal stumbling on whether Poland was controlled by the Soviet Union in 1976–which probably did make the difference in the close race with Jimmy Carter; the back-and-forth on the age question for Ronald Reagan in 1984; the over-emphasis on George H.W. Bush’s glancing at his watch in 1992; the obsession with Gore’s sighs in 2000; and so on. But we are not defending the debate coverage by the news media, only the actual substance of the candidates’ debate performances.

A Brief Look Back

To get personal for a moment, I grew up in a devout Roman Catholic family in Norfolk, Virginia. I was born in 1952, and my first real political moments came at age seven in 1960, sitting at my Dad’s feet, watching the summer political conventions and the presidential debates. Dad was a proud World War II veteran, and to his dying day he believed strongly in a citizen’s obligation to get involved in politics. Church and state were combined in 1960, with 80 percent of Catholics voting for their coreligionist, JFK, and a solid majority of Protestants casting a ballot for one of their own, Richard Nixon. In my family and parish, support for John Kennedy was the eighth sacrament, and I did my duty, handing out Kennedy-Johnson bumper stickers at school.

When the four debates came on TV, all three channels carried them, and the streets were almost deserted. Virtually everyone watched and you could hear a pin drop throughout America. There was little TV commentary afterwards, so voters formed their own opinions, for the most part. The newspapers were full of reactions, of course, but those didn’t appear until the next day. I can still remember excited talk in school after each face-off.

There is little doubt that the debates played a critical role in Kennedy’s extremely narrow victory (113,000 plurality in the popular vote, though a more comfortable 303 to 219 in the Electoral College). JFK was tanned, rested, and ready for those encounters, especially the first one that gave the initial impression of this relatively unknown young senator. Kennedy and the camera began a long love affair on debate night. By contrast, Nixon looked pale and wan; he was physically ill and had also refused make-up. To no one’s surprise, Nixon never participated in another presidential debate–although it never hurt him, winning the White House in 1968 and 1972.

We all learned the power of the TV debate in 1960, and it frightened politicians that so much could be lost so quickly on the little cathode ray tube. It was 16 years before America enjoyed TV debates again. Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter needed them to get better known and to pass the threshold of acceptability for the presidency, while incumbent President Gerald Ford–burdened with the Nixon pardon and a bad economy–was so far behind he sought a forum to shake up the contest. For the second time, a debate arguably made the difference in the election results. Carter had been losing ground, and Ford gaining rapidly when the Oct. 6 debate was held. And then Ford committed his free Poland gaffe, stopped all his forward momentum, and made Carter seem more knowledgeable than the incumbent president. Still, Ford finished just 2.5 percent behind Carter and fewer than 25,000 votes away from winning the Electoral College, had he carried Ohio and Hawaii. Ford might have been able to do it had Poland never been discussed in that debate.

Another highly consequential debate occurred in 1980. On Oct. 28, President Jimmy Carter met Ronald Reagan for their first and only debate. Carter muffed it, citing daughter Amy as his expert of note on nuclear proliferation, while Reagan de-fanged his own image with his jocular jab at Carter, “There you go again,” when Carter suggested disaster awaited the country in a Reagan presidency. Reagan also uttered what has become the gold standard of debate lines, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” A close contest began to tip Reagan’s way that evening, widening to a landslide after the collapse of negotiations for release of the American hostages in Iran just two days before the election.

Reagan almost became the victim of a debate in 1984, when his underwhelming, rambling performance in his first face-off with Walter Mondale caused some to wonder whether age had taken its toll on the 73 year-old President. The second and last debate answered the critics, when Reagan used a well-timed line, “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s age and inexperience.”

The 1988 debates were arguably the last chance for Democrat Michael Dukakis to overcome Vice President George H. W. Bush’s lead. That chance evaporated with Dukakis’ answer to the first question, from CNN anchor Bernard Shaw, who asked the long-time opponent of the death penalty what he would do were his own wife murdered. Instead of showing the outrage most Americans would expect of anyone in that hypothetical situation, Dukakis gave an unemotional response analyzing his views on capital punishment. That year’s vice-presidential debate was more memorable, however. Veteran Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, jumped at a self-comparison made by Republican Senator and vice-presidential nominee Dan Quayle to the late President John Kennedy. “I knew John Kennedy. John Kennedy was a friend of mine, and Senator, you’re no John F. Kennedy,” intoned Bentsen to a rousing cheer from the Democrats in the audience. Quayle’s career never recovered, but as usual, the vice presidential choice had little effect on the election outcome.

Bill Clinton was well on his way to victory already in 1992 when the debates were held, thanks in part to Ross Perot’s independent candidacy (which drew mainly from Republicans). Still, President Bush’s fate was sealed at a Richmond town meeting, when he was unresponsive to some admittedly nonsensical questions from “average citizens,” and seemed bored and oddly detached, looking at his watch–a gesture that was captured on camera.

The Clinton campaign set out to make the 1996 debates a non-event, and they succeeded fully. By far the least interesting of all presidential encounters, the debates are best known for Clinton’s achievement in cutting the number from three to two, thus reducing Republican nominee Bob Dole’s chances to score an upset. President Bush is trying to do the very same thing in 2004, and he can cite the Clinton arguments–and the Democratic Pooh-Bahs’ full support of the cutback–to frustrate the Kerry campaign.

It seems like another era, thinking back to the 2000 debates. These three meetings were not exactly scintillating TV, with their talk of lockboxes for Social Security and the like. If people remember anything about them, they recall that Bush exceeded low expectations, and that Gore loudly and repeatedly sighed into the microphone in the first debate, expressing his distaste for Bush’s answers. A surprising number of voters also remember the moment in the later town hall debate, which had a free-flowing stage on which the candidates could wander, when Gore literally invaded Bush’s personal space, positioning himself just inches from the Republican candidate. It was odd, and Bush’s quizzical reaction was quite humorous.

From 1976 through 2000, with the exception of 1980, there was one vice-presidential candidates’ debate as well. They produced some memorable moments, including Bob Dole’s 1976 charge that “Democrat wars” in the twentieth century had been costly, the Bentsen JFK line mentioned earlier, and the surprisingly civil Cheney-Lieberman debate in 2000. But the audiences are always far smaller for these encounters, and the impact has consistently been limited.

What Does This History Teach Us About the 2004 Debates?

Nobody can predict the precise sound bites that will produce the headlines in 2004, though the candidates often simply repeat many of the applause lines from their stump speeches. Here, the moderators matter, because their attempts to push the candidates beyond bromides will help determine the usefulness of the debates. We wish them success, but certain lessons can be drawn in advance about the debates beginning Sept. 30:

  1. This is John Kerry’s greatest opportunity, as it is for every challenger to a presidential incumbent. He will be fully the equal of George Bush on the platform, as this is one of the few moments in an entire four-year term when a President is stripped of the presidential seal and all the trappings of office. If Kerry cannot pass the presidential threshold at the debates, he has no chance to win.
  2. There are no teleprompters, so there will be unscripted surprises, and these moments are often the ones remembered by the voters and history. Here is where the quality of the questions from the moderators and panelists and citizens truly make a difference. An oddball query, a tightly constructed inquiry, and a tough follow-up can reveal the truth that will never be available in any other way during the long campaign.
  3. Debates do have an effect on some undecided voters and persuadable voters. Granted, in many years, the vote changes are not large, but the possibility always exists, which makes these affairs must-see TV for good citizens. It’s OK to tune in and watch for a train wreck!
  4. At least as important is the effect on partisans. Millions tune in simply to root for their side. If they are pleased by the candidate’s performance, they may get more excited and be more willing to volunteer time or talk up their nominee. Conversely, if their candidate turns in a poor performance, it can adversely affect party morale and perhaps have unfortunate consequences for party activities.
  5. Every moment counts. There is no down time in a debate. A cutaway shot of a candidate looking bored–or glancing at his watch or sighing–sends nonverbal cues to voters. A touch of anger or arrogance in an answer, even if partly justified by an irritating question from the moderator or comment from the other nominee, can turn off undecideds.
  6. The news media spin can strongly influence voters, especially if there is a consensus winner and loser. The classic case of this was in 1976, when citizen debate-watchers were relatively unconcerned about President Ford’s Poland gaffe, until the media made it the story in the days following. It would be wonderful if the anchors would simply wind up the debate with a fair summary of each candidate’s remarks and then sign off for the night, allowing each voter to make up his or her mind without direction. (It would also be wonderful if students would always read their assigned work and turn in their papers on time. In other words, it’s not going to happen.) Still, the situation is very different today than in, say, 1976. Many voices and perspectives are heard on the all-news cable channels and in other news sources, many of them contradictory. In 1976, with only three rather similar networks, the number of voices could be counted on one hand. Perhaps there is less of a chance of media consensus on a debate in 2004, and thus less chance that the media can effectively spin a debate to one side or the other. We shall see. The show opens in just 16 days.