Bright Lights, Big Stakes
Presidential debates are a relatively recent phenomenon. Senator John Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon were the guinea pigs on this date in 1960, and history has judged Kennedy's performance favorably, and Nixon's quite harshly. Much of this was attributed to their respective visual appearances, not the content of their responses to the moderator's questions. Kennedy would of course go on to win the White House in a nail biter, and his initial debate performance at CBS-2 in Chicago may have vaulted him over the top.
Although Kennedy and Nixon participated in 3 more debates prior to Election Day in 1960, it was not until 1976 when presidential debates resumed. President Ford squared off three times with former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, and vice presidential candidates Senators Bob Dole and Walter Mondale represented the first under card performance which has since been replicated in nearly every contest to date.
In the interim, Ronald Reagan used the single 1980 debate in the closing days of the campaign to make a close contest a blowout, dismissing Carter's attempt to portray him as a right-wing extremist with the simple line, "There you go again." The image of a telegenic Reagan simply didn't fit Carter's descriptions. In 1984, when Reagan's age raised concerns for some voters, he promised not to make age an issue for his younger opponent, Mondale, to the laughter and delight of the audience. The incumbent president would go on to clobber his Democratic opponent in 49 states.
Perhaps the most memorable vice presidential debate line occurred in 1988 in another standoff between two senators, the senior Lloyd Bentson and the junior Dan Quayle, who had a tendency of comparing himself to former President Kennedy. Bentson replied, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy." Although Quayle's running mate, then Vice President Bush, would go on to win the election, Quayle's reputation as an unqualified upstart was cemented in the eyes of voters.
In 1992, Governor Bill Clinton's comfort in a town hall setting contrasted with that of his Republican opponent, George H. Bush, who famously checked his watch at one point during the debate. Clinton's "I feel your pain" message resonated during the tail end of a recessionary period, and he glided to two terms in Washington.
The 1992 debates were also notable because they featured a third party candidate, the independent Ross Perot and his running mate Admiral James Stockdale. In the intervening elections including this one, third party candidates have been locked out of the presidential debates because of low poll numbers and a system run in concert with the two major parties.
Governor George W. Bush has never been known as a prolific public speaker, but he has often exceeded low expectations, and this was certainly true in his 2000 standoffs against Vice President Al Gore. Gore's verbal gasps of frustration seemed unpresidential and opened the door for a Bush victory in the Electoral College. In 2004, Bush's uneven performances and relatively strong showings by his Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry, resulted in a close shave for the incumbent president.
This brings us full circle 48 years later to this season's cycle of debates. It kicks off this evening with a presidential debate in Oxford, MS, at the University of Mississippi where McCain and Obama are to address foreign policy-related questions from PBS's Jim Lehrer, who will serve as moderator. Next Thursday, Oct. 2, Senator Joe Biden squares off with Governor Sarah Palin in the lone vice presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. McCain and Obama meet for a second time, this one in a town hall setting with open-ended questions coming from the audience and online participants, on Tuesday Oct. 2 at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. The final presidential debate will be staged eight days later on Wednesday Oct. 15 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. The candidates are to address the economy and other domestic issues.
The drama of the past 48 hours centers on a federal bailout package under negotiation between the Bush White House and select members of Congress. McCain attempted to insert himself in the process on Wednesday of this week, promising to suspend his campaign until a deal is struck, and asking that tonight's debate be postponed. Obama refused to bite, traveling to Washington himself to take part in the negotiations, but promising to be in Mississippi tonight with or without McCain sharing the spotlight. As of now, a bailout deal remains elusive, and McCain's appearance tonight a wild card.
Regardless of if, when, and how these debates transpire, the stakes could not be higher. Yesterday's Gallup three-day tracking poll has the contest in a dead heat, with both candidates registering at 46 percent in the poll. McCain would appear to hold the upper hand this evening on a debate concerning foreign policy, especially because he has made this the hallmark of his campaign. Obama's campaign negotiated to have this topic addressed in the first debate in order to minimize any potential damage in the contests that follow and the long slog until Election Day.
In a larger context, Obama needs to prove that he is prepared to serve as Commander-in-Chief. Given the turmoil in our nation's financial markets, both candidates must present their plans to stabilize the economy and restore us on a path to prosperity. Obama has arguably found more traction on this issue than McCain in recent days, and this probably promoted McCain's dramatic moves on Wednesday. McCain has the added burden of divorcing himself from the wildly unpopular Bush Administration, while still holding true to some of the economic policies traditionally favored by his party, including low taxes, reduced government spending, and free trade.
The debates offer a contrast in styles. McCain is the master of the one-liner, while Obama is more reserved and professorial in his responses. In this era of sound bytes, McCain holds the edge on this mark. Obama doesn't seem to sweat under the bright lights, while McCain is known to flash his temper during moments of distress. Calm, cool, and collected usually carries the day, so Obama scores on this point.
While McCain positions himself as a foreign policy guru, he is admittedly less interested in economic issues. They have emerged front and center in this campaign, and Obama seemingly has a more elaborate plan to sell to undecided voters. That said, Obama's campaign was never premised on the economy either, but instead broader notions of changing our nation's political culture, plus his early opposition to the Iraq War. As mentioned earlier, both candidates are desperately seeking traction on this issue, and their final two debate performances may turn the tide one direction or the other as Americans flail for a steady hand.
Hearkening back to the initial Kennedy-Nixon debates, one cannot discount the theatrics of these debates. A live television audience of as many as 100 million Americans will tune in, and McCain and Obama must both look the part of president. There are significant contrasts between these two candidates' age, height, and mannerisms. In sharing the same stage and spotlight, each of these will be visible to the naked eye and may just tip the scales in this epic battle.
I'll return on Monday with a recap of tonight's debate, then address next Thursday's vice presidential debate with a preview on Wednesday and a critique on Friday. Until then, grab a comfortable seat at home in front of the TV and hold on for the final 39 days of this thrilling presidential contest.