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Presidential Debates Are Good Theater, But Not Much More

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To some, Republican presidential contender John McCain is a noble citizen for citing the urgency of the financial implosion as the reason for trying to delay the first debate with Democratic rival Barack Obama. To others, it's simply a naked, crass, and desperate effort by McCain to seize back a tiny patch of the high ground from Obama on his strong point issue of the economy.

It doesn't much matter what the true motive for the stall is it won't change the fact that presidential debates make good theater but not much more. In a late life reflection in 1987 on what went right and wrong in his long and checkered political career, former President Richard Nixon had this to say about presidential debates, "In the television age, a candidate's appearance and style count far more than his ideas and record."

Nixon more than any other presidential candidate in modern times should know about that. The widely held belief is that Nixon's fidgety, wooden style, and unkempt appearance in his first 1960 televised debate with a relaxed, tanned, youthful looking John F. Kennedy did him in.
In their two follow-up debates, though, a much better composed and relaxed Nixon came off as having as good, if not better, command of the issues than Kennedy. His perceived debate loss to Kennedy didn't finish him. The probable vote machinations by Democrats in Illinois, a lukewarm, belated endorsement by the wildly popular President Dwight Eisenhower, and Nixon's refusal to phone Martin Luther King Sr. to offer support when Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed for civil rights protests in Georgia badly damaged him. Kennedy made the call. As a result, Nixon's vote among blacks dropped nearly 10 percent from Eisenhower's in 1956.

Nixon's alleged debate wash out sealed the belief that an afternoon shadow, mussed hair, a malapropism, and a gaffe during a debate will make or break presidents and their challengers. That's a myth. In 1976, President Ford's bid for a full elected term supposedly went down the tubes when he blurted out that Poland wasn't under Soviet domination during his debate with Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter. Presumably, that gaffe shot to pieces Ford's credibility on vital foreign policy issues. But Ford could not shake Republican blame for the Watergate scandal, and his pardon of Nixon. This more than his debate miscue did him in.

In 1980, it was thought that Republican challenger Ronald Reagan's carefully scripted and rehearsed "There you go again" retort to Carter when he accused him of wanting to slash Medicare so befuddled Carter that his re-election bid came unglued. But by the time of their debate, Carter's presidency was badly tattered. Voters blamed him for high inflation, unemployment, waves of business failures, and the bungled Iran hostage rescue mission.

In 1988, Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis' automaton-like answer in his debate with Vice President Bush Sr. to the loaded question about the death penalty supposedly blew his presidential bid. But Bush Sr. carried Reagan's imprimatur. The Reagan administration gave the appearance of fostering an economic boom, had stunning foreign policy successes marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and stratospheric public approval ratings.

In his debate with Democratic challenger Bill Clinton in 1992, President Bush Sr. repeatedly glanced at his watch and seemed impatient to get the debate over. That allegedly soured voters on him. That did not torpedo his re-election bid. Bush's inability to resuscitate the economy and urban racial turmoil badly hurt him. What really nailed him was the insurgent campaign of Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot. He siphoned off thousands of potential Republican votes. That cost Bush more than a hundred electoral votes in thirteen key Southern and swing states that Republicans had either won during Reagan's presidential triumphs, or had run strongly in.

In 2000, Bush came off as personable, witty, and conversational in his debate with Democrat Al Gore. By contrast Gore was perceived as stiff, arrogant, and condescending. Yet, many experts believed that despite Gore's personality glitches, he still beat Bush on the issues. Gore went on to win the popular vote. It took the Florida vote debacle and a Supreme Court ruling to settle the matter for Bush.
Do presidential debates then really influence voters to back a candidate and educate them on the issues? Some studies find that a majority of voters feel they don't learn much from the debates, and are disappointed at that. Even the minority of respondents who say they learn something from the debates insist that they don't influence their decision on who to vote for. Party affiliation, long-standing political preferences, personal beliefs and values largely determine that.

Obama will win the White House if voters really feel that he can best handle the country's economic mess. McCain will win if voters really feel that the national security and foreign policy concerns trump the economy and that he's the best to handle them. As for the presidential debates, they're still good shows though.

New America Media National Political Writer Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).