This year’s presidential race is the first not to include a sitting president or vice-president as a candidate since Dwight Eisenhower fought Adlai Stevenson in 1952. For the first time, a woman or a black person is guaranteed national elective office in a country that historically has been resistant to both. The two parties are neck and neck in a race in which – unlike in 2000 or 2004 – there is likely to be substantial crossover of support between the two main parties. No surprise, then, that the cycle of presidential and vice-presidential debates – starting on 26 September in Mississippi and ending on 15 October in New York – is being seen as the decisive factor.
Contrary to the publishers’ blurb, Newton Minow and Craig LaMay’s book is not the first account of the history of the debates (Alan Schroeder’s Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV, first published in 2001, has just been updated and reissued). But Minow, as former head of the Federal Communications Commission and a founder member of the Commission on Presidential Debates, can claim particular authority. (‘President John F. Kennedy told me more than once’ is the book’s opening phrase.) His and LaMay’s study is overwhelmingly concerned with the complex and often tortured history of the debates as an institution. There is some information – but not a lot – about the intricate negotiations between the parties as to the rules, setting and televising of the debates: ‘No props, notes, charts, diagrams or other writings or other tangible things may be brought into the debate by any candidate’; ‘The candidates may not ask each other direct questions, but may ask rhetorical questions’; ‘Except as provided in subparagraph (d)(viii) of this paragraph 9, TV cameras will be locked in place during all debates’. There is remarkably little description – less than five pages – of the debates themselves.
This last fact is revealing. In the first televised presidential debates in 1960, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon argued for four hours. Since televised debating returned in 1976, 13 presidential and ten vice-presidential candidates have spent a further 39 and three-quarter hours standing at podiums, sitting at tables or prowling among studio audiences. Despite this, the number of moments that are deemed to have affected the outcome of the debate (let alone the outcome of the election) is strikingly small. Although debates have been decided by gaffes and (less often) by winning bon mots, they are as likely to be won in the moments between the contestants’ speeches as by the speeches themselves. In the first and most recent series of debates (Kennedy/Nixon in 1960, Bush/Kerry in 2004), the supposedly decisive factors were a stance and a stutter. One debate was decided by a man looking at his watch, another by an off-screen sigh.
It is also generally agreed that debates are not won but lost, which means that they have become essentially a defensive activity, like World Cup football. The candidates’ preparation for them – a considerable art in itself, almost entirely ignored by Minow and LaMay – largely concerns avoiding past mistakes and current landmines, so that each round of debates narrows the margin of possible error in subsequent series (remembering Nixon in 1960, no candidate will ever again refuse the offer of make-up). Accused of turning politics into a beauty contest, the debates really make it a war of attrition, and the more so because until recently the agreed rules have been designed to limit direct interaction between the candidates (hence the criticism that the debates aren’t really debates at all, but simultaneous press conferences). Presidential debating has become, essentially, an exercise in competitive safety play, interrupted very occasionally by a knock-out blow or, more often, by an own goal.
Although the debates have been televised since 1960, head-to-heads between candidates have a much longer history in the US , going back to seven fabled three-hour tussles between the Illinois senatorial candidates Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln in 1858 (which certainly did involve direct confrontation), all on the single subject of slavery. In the 1920s, the League of Women Voters sponsored a ten-month series of radio debates, not between presidential candidates but between surrogates: journalists, scholars and fellow politicians. (The use of surrogates wasn’t unprecedented: Lincoln presented the arguments of the Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison in the 1836 presidential campaign.) In a 1948 primary campaign, Harold Stassen and Thomas Dewey debated the outlawing of the American Communist Party on national radio.
The idea of a televised presidential debate was proposed in 1959 by Dwight Eisenhower’s two-time opponent, Adlai Stevenson, at about the first moment when sufficient numbers of Americans possessed a television to make it a truly national event. Apart from a predictably hostile press, the main obstacle to Eisenhower’s proposal was a 1934 law that guaranteed politicians of all parties equal time in election coverage. In 1960 or any election since, that would have meant the involvement of upwards of 15 participants (including the Communist Party candidate). A 1959 amendment had excluded certain forms of coverage from the all-candidate rule, including ‘bona fide news’, but the four-hour-long Kennedy/Nixon debates were enabled only by a temporary suspension of the act, which lapsed immediately afterwards.
Organised along with the three other debates by the League of Women Voters, the first Kennedy/Nixon debate was judged by radio listeners to be a narrow win for Nixon. Television viewers called it differently. Having banged his already injured knee on a car door on the way in, Nixon’s tortured stance at the podium contrasted with Kennedy’s relaxed style. Not knowing that Kennedy was wearing foundation, Nixon refused make-up. Even his suit let him down: the painted studio set had dried much lighter than expected, so that the dark-suited Kennedy stood out, while Nixon, in a light suit, seemed to blend into the background. Kennedy did have his debating winners – ‘I really don’t need Mr Nixon to tell me about what my responsibilities are as a citizen’ – but his victory was won by Nixon’s uneasy gait, sweaty forehead and five o’clock shadow.
Kennedy had promised a barnstorming national debate tour to his friend and likely opponent in 1964, the ultra-conservative Arizona senator Barry Goldwater. In the event, Lyndon Johnson was not inclined to risk what promised (and turned out) to be a landslide victory over Goldwater, and turned his debate challenge down. Not surprisingly, Nixon rejected calls to put himself through another series of debates in 1968, when his opponent was Johnson’s vice-president, Hubert Humphrey; nor was he tempted four years later, when he had a clear lead over his anti-war challenger George McGovern. Only in 1976 – when Nixon’s post-resignation successor Gerald Ford found himself languishing 33 points behind the challenger, Jimmy Carter – did an incumbent president have sufficient incentive to address the limitations of the 1934 act. The Federal Communications Commission ruled that, as long as they were initiated by non-broadcast entities, televised debates were bona fide news events, and thus exempt from the equal time rule. Scoffed at by third party candidates – Were the debates really independently existing events, like the Super Bowl or a forest fire? – the FCC’s ruling allowed the only two realistic winners in a presidential election (and their running mates, Walter Mondale and Bob Dole) to debate live on television for the first time in 16 years.
The Ford and Carter teams exercised considerable control over the presentation of the debates, agreeing that they would consist of answers to questions from a panel of journalists, that there would be no direct questioning of one candidate by the other in the manner of the Lincoln/Douglas series, and no reaction shots of one candidate during the other’s answers. The shorter Carter demanded a ‘belt-buckle rule’ (whatever the respective heights of the candidates, their podiums should intersect their torsos in the same place) in exchange for conceding a darker backdrop, proposed by Ford’s camp to draw attention away from the president’s thinning hairline. Despite sophisticated strategic thinking – the Democrats sought to detach Ford from his presidential trappings, the Republicans to paint the debates as an act of noblesse oblige – the first debate was chiefly notable for a 27-minute audio breakdown, during which both candidates, fearful of the impact of leaving the stage, stood at their lecterns, speechless and seemingly frozen, until sound was restored.
The second debate, on foreign policy, was decided by a single gaffe. ‘There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,’ Ford stated in answer to a question about the Helsinki agreement, ‘and there never will be under a Ford administration.’ Challenged by a questioner, Ford dug himself ever deeper, claiming that countries like Poland didn’t see themselves as dominated by the USSR. Carter preceded his response with what was (in effect) a quizzically patronising reaction shot, and Ford’s image as a bumbler was confirmed (though not, it has to be said, until after a couple of days of relentless commentary).
It is significant that Ford’s 1976 gaffe was the result of an error in his preparation. It emerged that his advisers had prepped him for a different question: ‘Do we accept Soviet domination of Eastern Europe?’ In 1960, Nixon didn’t bother to rehearse his responses at all (though Kennedy did); twenty years later, so-called ‘debate camp’ preparation – including full-scale debate simulation with a surrogate opponent – would prove decisive in debate series from Ford/Carter in 1976 to Bush/Clinton in 1992.
Prep was never more significant than in the debates of 1980 and 1984, in both of which Ronald Reagan’s surrogate opponent was David Stockman, a young former radical who went on to head the Office of Management and Budget before resigning over the budget deficit in Reagan’s second term. Stockman had been employed by the independent candidate John Anderson, and played Anderson (with whom he had grown disillusioned, as he eventually would with Reagan) in the rehearsals for an Anderson/Reagan debate early in the 1980 campaign. Stockman was invited back to stand in for Carter (who had boycotted the first debate) in Reagan’s rehearsals for what was to prove the only confrontation between the main candidates in the 1980 election. This tussle was memorable for Jimmy Carter’s faux-folksy confession that his foreign policy priorities were selected on the basis of conversations with his 13-year-old daughter Amy. But more significant were two devastating tactics devised by the Reagan team. One was a rhetorical question in his closing statement: ‘Are you better off now than you were four years ago?’ The other was more a matter of mien. Concerned to dispel anxiety caused by Reagan’s bellicose campaign rhetoric, minders encouraged him to emphasise his avuncular charm. His persistent, mock-sorrowful use of the phrase ‘there you go again’ helped a lot, as did a note that one of Reagan’s advisers, Jim Baker, handed him just before he walked to his podium, on which he’d written the single word ‘chuckle’.
Fired up by their success in 1980, the same team prepped Reagan for the first of two debates against Walter Mondale four years later. Here, it all went horribly wrong. They presumed (falsely, as it turned out) that the feisty Mondale would come out fighting, so Stockman interrupted, harried and bullied Reagan. It destroyed his self-confidence: ‘What have you done to my husband?’ Nancy Reagan demanded. Worse, they had prepped Reagan for the wrong opponent. Aware of Reagan’s popularity, Mondale’s team came up with what they called the ‘gold watch strategy’; rather than attack him directly, Mondale should treat the president as ‘a sweet old guy who couldn’t run the family business any more’. Intimidated by his handlers, and facing a deferentially smiling opponent when he expected a lawnmower, Reagan fumbled and fluttered his way through the first debate. His age became the crucial issue for debate two. But Reagan (or his aides) came up with a one-liner – ‘I refuse to make my opponent’s youth and inexperience an issue in this campaign’ – which defused the age issue and removed the only obstacle to Reagan’s landslide re-election.
Bill Clinton proved a doughty debater – unlike either George Bush – but no subsequent confrontation had the drama or the impact of the Reagan debates. In 1988, mounted on a concealed ‘pitcher’s mound’ to conceal his shortness, Michael Dukakis took on George Bush’s viciously conservative campaign in their first debate (‘Of course the vice-president is questioning my patriotism … and I resent it’), only to confirm his reputation as ‘metronome man’ with an icy answer to a question about capital punishment in the second. Asked how he would react if his wife was raped and murdered, Dukakis trotted out his rehearsed argument for abolition without responding to the melodramatic form of the question. He compounded the mistake in a subsequent interview, insisting that ‘Kitty Dukakis is one of the most – is the most important thing in my life.’ But the most talked-about moment from the 1988 campaign came in the vice-presidential debate: noting that Dan Quayle had cited Kennedy as an example of a relatively inexperienced candidate for national office in his stump speech, his opponent, Lloyd Bentsen, prepared – and was able to use – the devastating put-down: ‘I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine; senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.’
In 1992, the experimental (and subsequently retained) ‘town hall meeting’ format was used for one of the three 1992 debates. Bill Clinton’s team mapped their candidate’s optimal trajectories across the open arena, in order to maximise the number of times George Bush would be in shot behind him. Bush, uncomfortable with debating at the best of times, was caught glancing at his watch, giving an impression of indifference which his post-debate spin-doctors, claiming Bush was merely checking that Clinton was not going over time, were unable to suppress. Clinton’s opponent in 1996 was Bob Dole, who won his reputation as an attack dog by demanding that an opponent in a Kansas senatorial contest, who was an obstetrician, reveal how many abortions he’d performed. Faced with an insurmountable deficit in the polls, Dole did his best to undermine the president’s self-confidence with dark mutterings about unspecified White House scandals (not knowing, at the time, of the real scandal that was to break two years later). But by this point presidential debating as a spectator sport had gone into a gentle and (so far) unreversed decline. From 1960 to 1992, viewing figures never fell below 60 million (in 1980 they topped 80 million); from 1996 to 2004, only one debate was watched by more than 50 million; the second and third Gore/Bush debates attracted fewer than 40 million.
George Bush Snr may have lost the 1992 town hall debate by looking at his watch, but his son clawed back his first debate in 2000 with Al Gore when the aggressively prepared Democrat punctuated a Bush answer with an impatient, off-screen sigh that was seen as mean and unmannerly. Four years later, Bush stumbled and stammered his way through the first debate with Kerry; delighted bloggers posted staccato compilations on YouTube, some intercut with Bush’s much more articulate debate performances in the Texas governor’s race ten years before. It didn’t make any difference: Bush won more votes than any candidate in history.
The decline in the reach and impact of televised presidential debates has been blamed on a stultified format. But it’s also true that the divide in American politics has become petrified: there are fewer genuine waverers, and the emphasis has shifted towards the importance of turning out the already persuaded. The contest in 2000 was, essentially, a draw; in 2004, Kerry won the second largest vote of any candidate in history. So far this century, blue and red America have glowered at each other across an increasingly impenetrable frontier.
Already it’s clear that this will not be the problem in 2008. Attracted by the home-town feistiness of McCain’s strategically brilliant vice-presidential choice, wavering Hillary Clinton Democrats appear to be joining rejuvenated social conservatives in the Republican camp, while both McCain and Obama won their party’s nominations by attracting centrist independents whom they are now desperately working to retain. The party-run Commission on Presidential Debates (which elbowed out the League of Women Voters as debate organisers in the mid-1980s) has at last won agreement for direct conversation between the candidates round a table, and the one town hall format debate will accept internet questions for the first time. The vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden should be vintage political television. It would be surprising if viewing figures for this year’s presidential debates didn’t return to the level of the 1980s.
Certainly, one of the candidates is dramatically well-prepared. Along with a dwindling list of also-rans, Obama and Clinton undertook 25 debates in their primary campaign, vastly exceeding in length all previous presidential debates put together. The forms of debate varied wildly: many involved ‘hand to hand combat’ between the candidates, two were simultaneously translated into Spanish (to the annoyance of minor candidates who weren’t allowed to show off their knowledge of the language), and another consisted of questions posted online. The two most interesting were both in the key swing state of Pennsylvania; the first, in October last year, involved what was seen as the first ganging-up on Clinton by her six opponents, and her uncertain and contradictory response to a proposal by New York’s governor to give driving licenses to illegal immigrants. By April, the public was so jaded by the contest that more attention was given to the questioners than the questioned: the two moderators were accused of trivialising the process by quizzing Clinton on her much-covered ‘mis-statements’ over a visit to Bosnia, and challenging Obama on his failure to wear a Stars and Stripes lapel pin.
It’s possible that the length and rigour of the Democratic primary battle will put voters off a presidential election debate process which hasn’t proved decisive since 1980. As a rule, as Samuel Popkin puts it, ‘debates are to elections what treaties are to wars. They ratify what has already been accomplished on the battlefield.’ But in this as in so many other respects, this year’s election may prove to be a first.