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Presidential debates: Good theater, but not much more

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Presidential debates: Good theater, but not much more

To some, Republican presidential nominee John McCain was 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 was 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 was — 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, knew about that. The widely held belief is that Nixon’s fidgety, wooden style and unkempt appearance in his first 1960 televised debate — against a relaxed, tanned, youthful looking John F. Kennedy — lost him that election.

But in their two subsequent debates, a much more composed and relaxed Nixon showed a good command of the issues, possibly even better than Kennedy. His perceived debate loss to Kennedy didn’t finish him. Rather, his candidacy was damaged by the probable vote machinations of Democrats in Illinois; a lukewarm, belated endorsement by wildly popular President Dwight D. Eisenhower; and Nixon’s refusal to phone Martin Luther King Sr. to offer support when his son, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was jailed during civil rights protests in Georgia. (Kennedy, on the other hand, made the call.) As a result, Nixon’s share of the black vote dropped nearly 10 percent from Eisenhower’s 1956 total.

Despite those factors, Nixon’s alleged debate washout sealed the belief that a 5 o’clock shadow, mussed hair, a malapropism and a gaffe during a debate will make or break a presidential bid. That’s a myth.

In 1976, President Gerald 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. It was argued that the gaffe shot holes in Ford’s credibility on vital foreign policy issues. But Ford couldn’t shake Republican blame for the Watergate scandal and his pardon of Nixon — those factors, 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 candidate Michael Dukakis’ automaton-like answer in his debate with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush to a loaded question about the death penalty supposedly blew his presidential bid. But Bush carried the imprimatur of the Reagan administration, which 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 repeatedly glanced at his watch and seemed impatient to get the debate over. That allegedly soured voters on him. But that didn’t torpedo his re-election bid. Bush was badly hurt by an inability to resuscitate the economy, and what really nailed him was the insurgent campaign of Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot, who siphoned off thousands of potential Republican votes. That cost Bush more than 100 electoral votes in 13 key Southern and swing states that Republicans had either won or run strongly in during Reagan’s triumphs.

In 2000, George W. Bush came off as personable, witty and conversational in his debate with Democratic nominee Vice President 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, and Gore went on to win the popular vote. It took the Florida vote debacle and a Supreme Court ruling to settle the matter in Bush’s favor.

Given all this information, the question is: Do presidential debates really influence voters to back a candidate, and educate Americans on the issues?

Some studies have found that a majority of voters feel they don’t learn much from the debates, and are disappointed at that. And 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. The presidential debates won’t matter one way or the other.

They’re still good shows, though.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a syndicated columnist, author and political analyst.