There We Go Again

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“Presidential debates aggravate one of the most serious flaws in modern American politics; they emphasize the entertainment value of politics,” says Richard Shenkman, editor of George Mason University’s History News Network, www.hnn.us. “They turn every voter into a theatergoer, and instead of asking whether a person’s rßsumß is appropriate for the Presidency, they ask how a candidate performs on television. That’s the wrong question; that’s the worst question, because it’s irrelevant to the office of the Presidency.” So is a candidate’s pugilistic skill, yet before every debate the press speculates on whether or not one of the candidates will administer a knockout blow. It has become the Godot of American presidential politics. The press has been waiting for one ever since Gerald Ford knocked himself to the canvas in 1976 by insisting that Eastern Europe was not under the domination of the Soviet Union. The gaffe badly hurt Ford’s vain attempt to win election in his own right, and it remains a cautionary tale for candidates and their handlers as they script their cautious answers to prospective questions.

THEY CAN PROVIDE A RACE’S MOST TELLING MOMENTS.
 

All that having been said, it is hard to imagine a modern presidential campaign without debates; that’s how much of an institution they have become. While the nominees are not obliged to participate, it’s also hard to imagine a candidate getting away with skipping one, as Jimmy Carter did in 1980 to protest the inclusion of the third-party candidate John Anderson. Carter, of course, later debated Reagan one-on-one, and we remember Reagan’s turning to Carter and saying, in that unmistakable voice, “There you go again.” The phrase immediately entered the popular lexicon. Carter, for his part, provided a memorable moment when he said that after consulting his young daughter, Amy, he had concluded that “the control of nuclear arms” was the era’s most pressing concern. His daughter certainly was correct, but viewers and voters (the two are not always the same) would have preferred to know that their President could have reached that conclusion without consulting an adolescent.

For all their flaws, and perhaps not always for the right reasons, the debates can provide a campaign’s most telling moments. These glimpses may or may not provide insight into a prospective President’s agenda or governing skills, but they often reveal personal qualities that the candidates would prefer to keep under wraps. And in a time when all politics is autobiography, authentic personal glimpses—so rare on the campaign trail —can make or break even the most policy-savvy candidate. Michael Dukakis discovered that in 1988, when his opposition to the death penalty was challenged by CNN’s Bernard Shaw, who wanted to know if he would change his mind if Kitty Dukakis, his wife, were raped and murdered. Dukakis’s reply was logical, articulate, and shockingly unemotional. George H. W. Bush’s inability to explain how a bad economy was affecting him in 1992 played into the hands of his challenger, Bill Clinton, who talked about out-of-work citizens he knew in his home state of Arkansas. Yes, he felt our pain. Al Gore, long accused of being too wooden and calculating, did nothing to dispel those images during the debates in 2000.

Candidates do not necessarily live or die on the basis of debates. If they did, Walter Mondale would have unseated Ronald Reagan in 1984, after the 73-year-old incumbent’s painful and confused response to Mondale’s criticisms. And Dan Quayle would not have been Vice President after enduring perhaps the most withering putdown in debate history when Lloyd Bentsen told him in 1988 that he was “no Jack Kennedy.”

It certainly is not true that the debates, for all their emphasis on showmanship, display no powerful arguments. Ronald Reagan—there he goes again!—delivered a classic appeal when, in 1980, he asked the country, “Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago?” Perhaps not the most uplifting appeal the nation has ever heard, but it surely was effective.

Were it not for the debates, Richard Shenkman acknowledges, we would be left with 30-second commercials, talk radio, the Internet, and, for old media types, the occasional newspaper or periodical. We would never see the people who would lead us interacting with each other, even if the interaction is hardly spontaneous.

For that reason alone, we’re better off than 40 years ago.