If history is any indicator, the presidential debates – which are scheduled to begin on Friday – will play a major role in determining who will be the next President of the United States. If the candidates are smart, they will do what I have done – look to past presidential debates for clues on what works, and what doesn’t.
Following is a quick overview of some memorable debates – and the lessons they may hold:
Contrary to popular opinion, 1976 was the year that modern presidential debates really began. The Kennedy-Nixon affair in 1960 was an anomaly; post-1960, neither Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon ever had to debate their way to the White House.
In 2008, of course, neither Obama nor McCain can afford to eschew debates. Obviously, the big lesson of 1960 was to be well-rested and wear make-up (folks who watched it on TV said Kennedy won, while folks who heard it on the radio said Nixon won).
Interestingly, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter instituted the format which will be replicated this year: three Presidential debates and one vice presidential debate. Ford famously made the first major gaffe in a presidential debate, claiming that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Ford took a hit for the line, and went on to lose.
The vice presidential debate between Senators Walter Mondale and Bob Dole also hurt the Ford campaign when Dole referred to World War II as a “Democrat War.”
McCain and Obama may take two things from 1976: First: have the facts straight, and second: avoid cheap-shots.
1980 was the last time (until, of course, McCain threatened to back-out of the Ole’ Miss debate to instead focus on the economic crisis) the two major candidates engaged in a major stare-down over whether or not to hold the debates. Ronald Reagan wanted independent candidate John Anderson included, while Jimmy Carter refused to debate the third man in the race.
Carter turned down his invitation to the first debate, so Reagan and Anderson went on without him. The incumbent did show up for the second debate after Anderson was not invited. Reagan got the most memorable line with his response to a grilling on Medicare: “There you go again.”