One Man’s Opinion: Debating The Debates...And More

The first nationally televised Presidential debate in 1960, carried simultaneously live on radio, was a gentlemanly contest between then U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Vice-President Richard M. Nixon, of California.  No live audience, no hoopla or spin-rooms afterwards.  Analysis was primarily done over the following days, critiquing performance and fact-checking.  On television, Nixon appeared to have a five-o’clock shadow, perspired heavily and looked uncomfortable in comparison to Kennedy’s ready smile and wit.  TV viewers most typically felt Kennedy won the debate, while those who listened on radio favored Nixon’s more detailed and thoughtful replies and gave him the winning nod.

We have come a long way since that time and those days, not all for the good.  The benefits of incumbency, since J.F.K.’s upset victory have remained potent.  If not assassinated, Kennedy was looking good for re-election.  Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson ascended into the Presidency and beat back Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964.  They had no debate.  Largely due to his flagging popularity and health challenges, LBJ declined to seek a second full term in 1968, leaving that race to his V.P. Hubert HumphreyRichard Nixon beat Humphrey in 1968 (no debates), and then Senator George McGovern in 1972.  In 1980, incumbent President Jimmy Carter lost in a landslide, on the back of an inflation crippled economy, energy shortages, the Iranian hostage crisis and some incredibly memorable lines and debate performances by challenger, former California Governor Ronald Reagan.

The next incumbent to lose the White House, President George H. W. Bush would also face a souring economy, and during a three way debate stage, spending too many moments looking disinterested and gazing at his watch, versus engaging his opponents, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and a feisty fellow Texan, H. Ross Perot.  Since that 1992 contest and debate, every incumbent President choosing to face re-election has won, until President Donald Trump’s narrow loss in 2020 to now President Joe Biden.

Trump had easily dispatched a large field of GOP challengers in 2016 and by the time he debated the Democratic Party nominee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the fall of 2016, his calls to “Lock Her Up,” and repeats calls for Clinton to drop out of the race,’ as she was at the time under criminal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and F.B.I., were well worn on the campaign trail.

Yet now, neither President Joe Biden nor former President Donald Trump are yet their party’ official nominee.  ONLY the Libertarian Party has met in Convention, voted and selected their nominee, an Atlantan and somewhat perennial candidate, Chase Oliver.  Both of the major party candidates have eschewed any involvement by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CDP), formed as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization in 1987.  Though not perfect, the CDP has done an able job for nearly four decades, without taxpayer funding or support.  Which brings us to 2024, Biden and Trump have each agreed to a rules-laden, audience free debate, in the Atlanta studios of CNN on Thursday, June 27th.  A second contest, hosted by ABC News has been set for Tuesday, September 10th.

Trump will promise closed borders, mass deportations, the return of a more robust economy and non-’rigged’ elections and judicial proceedings.  Biden will declare himself the champion of Democracy, the Rule of Law and advocate for federal restoration of a women’s right to legal abortion, as well as more voter demographic ‘gifts’ such as greater forgiveness of college loan debt.  And though there is a strong distaste in the public with both candidates, with a majority in polls and surveys seeking better choices...there may be few ‘undecided’ voters that either nominee believes they can additionally persuade or bring to their sides.

Instead both campaigns are wagering that any forced errors or blow ups in June or September may only live on in campaign ads or as Tik Tok memes through the fall, and will be considered OLD news by Halloween.  It has historically been those late-breaking voters, who choose in the last 2-3 weeks, typically making up 15-20 percent of the voting population who decide most Presidential contests.  Current circumstances for both candidates suggest, for different reasons, that actually only ONE of these two planned debates may actually come together.  Of the two, I think Atlanta is more likely, but that September date would put some distance between Trump and his trial verdicts and the Hunter Biden trial will by then have also occurred.  Either way, if nothing else, this political theater, like a dumpster fire, will remain hard to look away from, creating Presidential campaign moments, which we may still recall in good humor or horror decades from now.

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