The Presidential and Vice Presidential debates have always been the most entertaining part of the election season for me. From the past debates that I’m seen, they’ve usually been less about the issues and more about creating an impression to the American people about the personality and character of the particular candidates. My first Presidential debate that I remember is the Reagan/Carter debate in 1980, and I just remember Reagan saying “there you go again” whenever Carter criticized Reagan. Though a lot of the debates seem canned, they do offer a chance to see the candidates perform alone without the handlers and p.r. people, and it gives us a chance to see how the candidates think on their feet. I found on the internet a site that Jim Lehrer hosted for PBS called Debating Our Destiny (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/debatingourdestiny/index.html) that looked back on the televised Presidential and Vice debates and interviewed the candidates to see their thoughts on the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates. As we listen to the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates in these next few weeks, I’ve found this site to be illuminating and it gives me some perspective on the goals and approaches that John McCain, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and Joe Biden may take.
My favorite debate was the 1992 Vice Presidential Debate, just for the sheer entertainment value. I had gone to my friend Lupita’s home to watch it with Lupita and another friend Marilou, and I remember our jaws just collectively dropped at how the debate unfolded. It was basicly a food fight. That year there were 3 candidates debating: Al Gore, Dan Quayle, and James Stockdale (the V.P. candidate of independent Ross Perot). Stockdale was fumbling and often didn’t have answers to the questions that the moderator had. When he didn’t have an answer, Quayle and Gore jumped in and tore into each other with verbal jabs. I loved it. It was the sort of free for all, where the candidates faced each other and answered each others questions. In the Lehrer interview with Stockdale (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/debatingourdestiny/1992.html), Stockdale said that he had only found out about the debate days before the event was to take place and that no one in Perot’s campaign helped him to prepare. Quayle came into the debate determined to focus on Clinton and felt Stockdale made the debate cluttered.
The first debate that I remember very well was the 1984 debate between Mondale and Reagan. I had been having long discussions with my father during the Fall; I wanted Mondale to win, while my dad was going for Reagan. Since I couldn’t vote at the time, it was important that I tried to persuade my dad of the error of his ways. So our family had some vested interest in the debates. I remember gloating after the first debate, because I thought Mondale was a lot sharper than Reagan, and it seemed that Reagan was a bit lost during the debates. In the second debate, Reagan was more his calm and folksy self, and it spelled doom for Mondale. In his interview with Lehrer (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/debatingourdestiny/1984.html), Mondale said that he viewed the debates as the one way to gain ground in the elections against a very popular President. Reagan told Lehrer that he stumbled in the first debate because he overtrained by trying to memorize statistics and facts in preparation for the debate. In the second debate, Mondale said that when Reagan made that quip about not exploiting Mondale’s youth and inexperience, he knew at that moment he lost the elections. I lost as well. My dad voted for Reagan and did some gloating of his own. It was a tough winter that year.
The first election that I was able to vote was the 1988 elections. The Presidential debates that year made me very angry and frustrated. Dukakis was the Democratic nominee that year, and I felt that that he was receiving a lot of cheap shots from the Republicans with the Willie Horton ads, the pledge of allegiance issue, and the insinuations about being a card carrying member of the ACLU. During the debates, Dukakis seemed very cold and monotone, and he had a hard time answering Bush’s cheap shots at him. I vividly remember wanting to shake him. Dukakis told Lehrer (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/debatingourdestiny/1988.html) that he had no premonition of the way viewers would gauge the debates, especially a question that a moderator asked Dukakis about whether Dukakis would favor a death penalty to a person who had raped and killed his wife. As an opponent to the death penalty, Dukakis had answered that question a thousand times before, and answered the question in a canned way. Dukakis later realized that although he may have answered that question many times before, the debates are the first time that many Americans have viewed Dukakis and will form their opinions based on what they see in these televised events.
This PBS site is a wonderful chance to hear about experiences and insights of the candidates who have participated in the debates. George H.W. Bush, who participated in 1 Vice Presidential debate and 5 Presidential debates, hated the debates because he felt that the televised debates was more about entertainment than about debating the nuances of issues or of telling the nation of the candidate’s experience. In the 1988 debate against Dukakis, Bush at one point asked when it was time to unleash the one-liners. Geraldine Ferraro (Walter Mondale’s Vice Presidential nominee in 1984) and Dan Quayle (George H.W. Bush’s Vice Presidential nominee for 1988) both expressed the fear of making a major mistake that would harm the campaign, and Quayle felt that his trying to memorize all the issues and statistics was a mistake because it made him stiff and nervous. This was a common theme among many of the candidates, that the debates offered the challenge of being relaxed while being prepared with the issues. Bill Clinton came into the debates with 3 or 4 prepackaged lines that he was prepared to use when the moment opened up. Jimmy Carter came into the 1976 debates having never met a President before, and frankly told Lehrer that he was very intimidated to be in the same stage as President Ford.
I think the best debates were the 3 Presidential debates in 1992, especially the town hall debate. During the 3 debates, I thought having 3 candidates was an advantage because it forced the candidates to focus on the issues and it made it harder for them to make character attacks without having to defend themselves from two other candidates. In the first debate, Ross Perot made good use of one liners, but in the town hall debate, his one liners fell flat and they had to focus more on the issues. When the candidates had to directly answer the people in the audience, it made the debates more personal to me. My favorite moment was when a woman asked President Bush about how the recession affected him personally.
In my years watching the debates, I think the candidates who were most effective on television were Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. They seemed to realize that the point of these television events was not to win the debates, per se, but to connect with the people who were watching. As the Biden/Palin debate nears, much is being made of Biden’s experience and policy expertise as compared to Palin. As the Reagan/Mondale debates of 1984 showed, it’s not always the most informed candidates who “win” the debates.
In watching the first Obama/McCain debate, I see two serious candidates who are well informed and who are good at stating their very different views on how they would run the country. With the recent financial meltdown, the dangers in foreign affairs, the problems with energy and the environment, it’s good that these candidates are taking the time to meet face to face and discuss the issues to a national audience. A lot of what they’ll say will be rehearsed and they will try to paint the other candidate in a negative way, but these debates are still important. The President and the Vice President are the two political offices that are voted by all of the American people and it’s important for those who run to be able to face the American nation that elected them. I look forward to watching the rest of the debates.