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Presidential Debates Then and Now

January 21, 2012

The recent Republican Party ‘debate’ in South Carolina reminds one of what television has done to corrode the thinking processes not only of the electorate, but also of the candidates who subject themselves to info-tainment styled as a ‘debate’  A real debate, even one conducted by a high school debate club, would not begin with a barbed question about a candidate’s personal life, as this one did when Newt Gingrich’s past marital problems took precedence over a recession, a national debt exceeding $15,000,000,000,000 and two or more wars (Afghanistan and Libya, plus possibly Syria, Yemen and Iran) that America is currently fighting.  In a real debate, each candidate would receive an approximately equal amount of speaking time; that rarely has happened this campaign season, and did not happen on January 19th in South Carolina.  Ron Paul received his customary half-portion of the time given to the others; it is almost as the ‘moderator’ would prefer that he weren’t included.

It wasn’t always w this way.  While the Lincoln-Douglas debates are usually held up as the standard, they weren’t presidential debates; the candidates were running for the Senate, although the race had presidential implications.  Closer in time and type is the Dewey-Stassen debate of May 17, 1948. Two Republican presidential candidates debated before the Oregon primary.  They debated for a solid hour on only one question:  ‘Should the Communist Party be outlawed?’  Gov. Stassen began by speaking in the affirmative for 20 minutes; Gov. Dewey followed with a 20-minute statement in the negative.  each then delivered an 8.5-minute rebuttal.  That constituted the debate.  40,000,000 Americans, out of a population of about 140,000,000, listened in.  By contrast, the current round of ‘debates’ do not generally attract a top-five TV audience, and the 5,000,000 or so who did tune in represent a much smaller fraction of America than did the Dewey-Stassen audience.

Why the difference?  Some points that some easily to mind are these:  The Dewey-Stassen debate was a serious debate, on a topic of critical importance to the nation.  The debate was conducted as a proper debate, without personal attacks, with equal speaking time, with enough time for each speaker to develop and defend his ideas, and with a neutral moderator who did not insert himself into the flow of the debate.  No one was selling the event as entertainment, which is a clear subtext of the present-day ‘debate’ culture.  Americans were also more educated in, and interested in politics, and they had just emerged from the Great Depression and World War II to find themselves confronting the Communist Bloc around the world, with the Berlin Airlift and civil war in China, among other things,  dominating the headlines in 1948.

Other debates have come after Dewey-Stassen.  They have been televised,m beginning with Kennedy-Nixon in 1960.  (A majority of radio listeners thought that Nixon won, while TV viewers tended to think that Kennedy did – a demonstration of the power of the medium to influence perception.) For several election cycles, The League of Women Voters hosted the debates, keeping them fairly run and reasonably serious in nature.  The last 20 years have witnessed the major parties free themselves from the shackles of externally-imposed restraint as they morphed the debates into the form we have with us today.

For those interested in seeing (or hearing) what a serious presidential debate sounds like, please click here for an audio file of Dewey-Stassen; you can hear for yourself what our politics is missing.  It is unfortunate for us that a debate featuring a Harvard lawyer with an MBA, a Duke U. M.D., a Ph.D in history and a graduate of Pitt, Penn State (MBA) and Dickinson School of Law should have to subject themselves to such an unproductive and inane format for offering their views to the electorate.  One could hope to find a ‘debate’ of this quality at the neighborhood bar & grill, and one would likely not be disappointed.  The citizens of a great nation ought to deserve better; perhaps they think so, too, and that is why so few pay attention.

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