McCain and Obama Can Learn A Lot From Past Debaters

Matt Lewis
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Posted: Sep 25, 2008 1:20 PM
McCain and Obama Can Learn A Lot From Past Debaters

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.” 

Carter also got in trouble for mentioning that he asked his daughter Amy for advice on an issue. The lesson: being too cute can make it look like you’re not being serious. That might be an important note for both Senator Obama and Governor Palin, who often reference their family life.

The 1984 campaign may provide the most interesting study in how the debates affect the public on Election Day. President Reagan debated former VP Walter Mondale twice. The first time, Mondale was widely hailed as the winner, having made Reagan look old, senile, and out of touch. Nobody remembers that, but everyone remembers the second and final debate, where a poised and prepared Reagan declared, “I will not exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience”.  If Mondale ever had any hope at all, it ended with that line.  (Might John McCain also use humor to deflate the idea that he is too old?)

One other footnote:  1984 was the only national debate ever to feature a woman, with Geraldine Ferraro taking-on George H.W. Bush. Ferraro scored the line of the night after George Bush decided to lecture her on the difference between Iran and Lebanon: “I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.”  After the debate, Bush also muttered "we tried to kick a little ass last night," into an open mic. 

Biden would do well to avoid this sort of celebrating in the end zone, as well.  As such, one might suggest that this showdown is a far better comparison to this year’s Biden-Palin match-up than the ’92 debate, and Senator Biden should be advised to watch it before he tries to do a Lloyd Bentsen impression.

In 1988, the now powerful Commission on Presidential Debates was running the show for the first time. Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush met Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis in only two debates, but one of them produced one of the biggest incidents of the campaign. Dukakis, a staunch opponent of the death penalty, was asked whether he would support it if his own wife were to be raped and murdered. He answered in the negative and proceeded to discuss the issue in a very dispassionate manner, which came across as very weak. The Vice Presidential debate also produced fireworks when Dan Quayle compared his level of experience the pre-Presidency resume of John F. Kennedy. Senator Lloyd Bentsen seized on the line and uttered arguably the most legendary line of any U.S. election debate: “I served with Jack Kennedy; I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” This may be particularly relevant in 2008, with pundits showing the propensity to compare Joe Biden to Bentsen and Sarah Palin to Quayle.

In 1992, Bill Clinton proved a master at using the Town Hall format.  While George H.W. Bush looked at his watch, Clinton waded into the crowd “Oprah-style,” hugged a questioner, and said, “I feel your pain.”  While McCain is no Bill Clinton, he is much better at the Town Hall format than is the aloof (and rehearsed) Obama.

While debates between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush were important, it was the presence of Ross Perot that seemed to dominate the ’92 debates. He did well in the first, firing off one-liners like “the party’s over and it’s time for the cleanup crew,” more proof that the best lines win. The second debate, however, was dominated not by a line, but by the fact that President Bush was twice caught looking at his wristwatch. And finally, the VP debate became relevant when Admiral James Stockdale undermined Perot’s eloquence by turning in arguably the worst performance in debate history. His opening line, “Who am I? Why am I here?” became legendary. There might be a note of caution for John McCain here, as Stockdale was a military man, spent years as a Vietnam POW, and had a very blunt, clipped speaking style. Luckily, McCain has years of Senate experience and will not have to deal with Al Gore and Dan Quayle playing what Stockdale called “ping pong”. If Obama or Biden decides to be overly aggressive with their oratorical skills, however, McCain or Palin might be able to borrow a line from Quayle, “Take a breath, Al, inhale.”

In 1996, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole were remarkable primarily for their "unremarkability". In a year where Dole’s age (73) and Clinton’s affairs presented huge targets, both candidates refused to pull the trigger. In one debate, Clinton went so far as to say, “I don't think Senator Dole is too old to be president. It's the age of his ideas that I question”. Meanwhile, Dole refused to touch on Clinton’s improprieties, responding to a question about “personal differences” by saying “my blood pressure’s lower, my weight, my cholesterol – but I will not make health an issue in this campaign” Sometimes the best way to disarm an opponent is to kill them with kindness.  For example, in ’96, Al Gore was so nice to Jack Kemp that Kemp was somewhat thrown off his game. 

The 2000 debates proved two things: the power of one-liners and the effect of nonverbal communication. Then-Governor George W. Bush made the point about one-liners, delivering a number of good ones. He coined the term “Mediscare” to describe Al Gore’s rhetoric on health care for seniors, repeatedly used the phrase “fuzzy math” in reference to Gore’s numbers, and topped of the number jokes by accusing Gore of inventing the calculator in addition to the internet. To show just how memorable such lines can be, my intern (who was only 14 at the time) remembers the line so vividly that he still refers to political number-crunching as “fuzzy math”.  Gore, on the other hand, made the nonverbal mistake of the century when he was heard sighing into the microphone during Bush’s remarks. On the other hand, Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman broke with Vice Presidential tradition by having a surprisingly civil encounter.

2004 seemed rather unremarkable in a historical context, but one line will be instructive this time around.  John Kerry said:  "If you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was, she's being who she was born as."  Mentioning Cheney’s daughter was described by Lynne Cheney as a “cheap and tawdry trick,” and most likely hurt Kerry.  This is instructive because one could imagine Biden congratulating Palin on her daughter, Bristol’s pregnancy.

John Edwards (who also mentioned Cheney’s daughter) slammed Dick Cheney’s associations with Halliburton, while Cheney probably landed the hardest blow while blasting Edward’s poor attendance in the U.S. Senate: “I’m up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they’re in session, the first time I ever met you was when you walked on this stage tonight.”  

So what lessons can be learned?  Here are a few items the candidate should consider.

       Barack Obama should closely watch the 1988 vice presidential debate so he isn’t also lambasted for being an effete liberal, overly intellectual, and for having an overly high opinion of himself.

-       John McCain, on the other hand, should study the 1992 presidential debates to see how Bill Clinton out-maneuvered a more aloof opponent.  He should also watch the ’92 vice presidential debate to avoid a potentially disturbing resemblance to Admiral Stockdale.  He should also look at the 1984 debate, and see how Reagan defused the age issue with humor.

-       Sarah Palin should also watch a lot of Reagan, who was the expert at being likeable and disarming opponents.  She has what it takes, but it won’t hurt to have “The Gipper” whispering in her ear.

-      And finally, Joe Biden should avoid the ’04 mistake of mentioning his opponent’s children.  Moreover, he should avoid the 1988 VP debate at all costs and watch the Bush-Ferraro debate instead. With all due respect to Biden, my advice to him is, “Senator, you’re no Lloyd Bentsen” – so don’t bother trying to take down Palin the way Bentsen took down Quayle.  By watching Bush’s mishandling of the Ferraro debate, he may also avoid coming across as “patronizing” to the likable, female newcomer.    

In the final analysis, it may be hard to predict what could come out of this year’s debates, there are a few lessons for each of the candidates.  

Don’t make any wild claims. Dan Quayle and Bob Dole both paid for that mistake in VP debates, and Barack Obama could end up in the same situation if he says anything about turning back the waters or healing the planet. Soaring messianic rhetoric works on the campaign trial, but not when your opponent is ready to pounce. Don’t look like you don’t care. Obama has the tendency to come across as overly calm and disconnected, a trait that got Mike Dukakis in trouble when asked about his wife.

Some poetic oratory is necessary. James Stockdale found that out the hard way, and John McCain could fall into the same trap. Try to relate to the average American, but not too hard. Reagan scored with “There you go again”, but Carter flopped when he admitted asking his daughter for advice.  And finally, it almost goes without saying that the guy with the best lines usually wins.  Cynical as it sounds, nobody remembers much about the hardcore policy debates, but who doesn’t remember “there you go again”, “Why am I here?”, or “you’re no Jack Kennedy”?

For video and analysis of every debate since 1976, be sure to check out Jim Lehrer’s program “Debating Our Destiny” at PBS.com.  

Townhall’s Adam Brickley contributed to this column.