Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

The debate debate

By George Sumner - posted Friday, 15 September 2000

While presidential candidates are not required to debate, the practice is now such a strong tradition that it seems like a constitutional rule. This time the season has been preceded with the inevitable debate over debates, with both candidates bickering to secure the format that will be most advantageous to their candidacy. Conventional wisdom says the debates will only work to help Gore. Yet past history has shown that the most knowledgeable candidate does not always get the boost expected.

Presidential debates have long been a major milestone in the race for the White House. The precedent was set in 1960 with the legendary Kennedy/Nixon debates, widely recognized as the first time television played a pivotal role in the outcome of an election. While television debates were absent in campaigns in the following 16 years, every presidential contender since has gone side-by-side against their opponent for 90 minutes of questioning. The debates represent a chance for the voter to get a real impression of what each candidate stands for, with a massive 90 million viewers tuning in to see Clinton, Perot, and Bush exchange views in 1992. Naturally, with so much at stake each candidate always bickers beforehand about the number, the format, the location and every other detail of the debate. To keep the debate over debates to a minimum, an independent Commission on Presidential Debates has set up all the presidential debates since 1988.

This time round, Bush is perceived as having the most to lose from the debates. His grasp of policy is known to be shaky and he is not particularly articulate, with mispronunciations and ‘Bushisms’ growing by the day. Gore on the other hand has acquired a name as a fearsome debater. Gore’s reputation goes back to 1993 when he debated Ross Perot live on CNN over the merits of the NAFTA trade agreement. The Vice President gave a combative performance interrupting Perot to suggest that his opposition to NAFTA was just to help Perot’s own political ambitions. In the presidential primaries Gore again showed off his formidable technique of pummelling his opponent with specifics and details. With both candidates’ reputations in mind, conventional wisdom is that the debates will highlight Bush’s weaknesses and Gore's strengths. Such a view may underestimate Bush’s abilities – he survived the presidential primaries without any gaffes. Bush’s reputation may, however, work to his own advantage by raising the expectations of Gore. If Bush gives a competent performance and avoids any embarrassments, he will be given credit for winning the exchange. Gore, on the other hand, has pressure on him to hammer or humiliate his opponent.


Bush has attempted to counter his image by taking the initiative on debates. Over labor-day weekend Bush held a press conference challenging Al Gore to three debates: one 90-minute sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates and two debates on popular political television shows, CNN's Larry King and NBC's Meet the Press. The two television shows would mark a dramatic departure from the traditional format with both candidates sat at a table rather than stood at a podium; with questions being asked by the show’s anchor rather than a panel of journalists; and the shows lasting only one hour. Officially the Bush camp justified this move by deriding traditional debate formats as phony and stilted, rewarding the candidate who can best memorize the 60-second statements. The belief is also that the more informal and low-key approach to these debates would be more suited to Bush’s folksy style. The converse argument would be that Bush lacks the statesmanlike qualities to look truly comfortable at a podium.

The smaller debates may be more convenient for Bush for reasons other than style. For a start, the Bush proposal would mean one hour less debate time in total than under the traditional debate format. That’s less time for Bush to make a gaffe or for Gore to deliver a knockout. Then there is the issue of audience. A debate sponsored by the Commission would be aired on 6 networks. Only CNN and NBC would broadcast the debates on their own television shows. There is no reason why any other network would give free airtime, publicity and hand their audiences over to a rival network’s show. Consequently there is no chance such a debate could get anything near the audience of 45 million that the debates received in 1996. That means less people to hear another Bushism. The sum of the Bush proposal would be for fewer people to see two candidates debate for a shorter period of time.

Yet by framing what is essentially a dilution of the normal format as a challenge, Bush made a clever manoeuvre. Bush has made an offer that Gore has absolutely no reason to accept. Why would Gore want to limit the time and audience of the forum where he has experience and a record of success? Bush gleefully replayed tapes of the Vice President earlier in the campaign saying he would debate on both Larry King and Meet the Press. As expected, Gore said that he would debate on the programs, but only in addition to 3 commission-sponsored debates. Consequently, by taking the initiative Bush has attempted to secure an advantageous format while casting Gore as the debate ducker.

As ingenious as his tactic was, Bush has fallen flat on his face. First of all, for anyone with half an interest in US politics, the idea that Gore is frightened of going head to head is implausible. Debating has always been a key feature in his campaigning. In the primary he challenged Bill Bradley to stop TV ads and debate a different issue each week. Most people are suspicious of Bush intellectually and have little reason to believe that Gore would be intimidated. Any pundit can see the Bush plan for what it really is. Those not as familiar with the two candidates are unlikely to be remotely interested in this issue. It would be hard to find a voter whose blood boils simply because Gore would not agree to go on CNN rather than a commission-sponsored debate. Basically, anyone who follows the campaign understands the strategic motive behind Bush’s debate offer, and anyone who doesn’t is unlikely to care.

After two weeks of criticism following his original offer, Bush has finally folded in his hand of cards and agreed to 3 commission organized debates lasting 90 minutes. The episode has merely confirmed the view that the Texas Governor is reluctant to meet the Vice President. But at least this marks an end to the debate debate – a process of interest only to pundits and politicos.

While most voters don’t care about the ins and outs of debate negotiations, the actual debates have provided some of the most memorable moments in past election campaigns. The debates can be the forum that projects the defining image of the candidate to the electorate. Who can forget in 1992, when Bill Clinton and George Bush sat side by side, Clinton projected an image of enthusiasm and youthfulness when he stepped out from the podium to address the audience. By contrast President Bush looked like he would rather be anywhere else, and was caught glancing at his watch. The debate helped show Bush as a tired aloof patrician whose time was up.


However, Gore should not be overconfident about the debates. Before the first presidential debate, Nixon, like Gore, was considered a highly skilled debater. He had successfully won over a national television audience 8 years earlier in his "Checkers" speech, and the country stood behind him in the "kitchen debate" with a Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Unfortunately for Nixon he was still recovering from a recent illness and had lost weight, color and energy. An unusually gaunt Nixon stood perspiring, shifty-eyed and with five o’clock shadow next to a youthful, confident and measured Jack Kennedy. While Nixon put in a good performance scoring points over Kennedy, he failed to understand the medium. Gore clearly has a good understanding of the medium, but the episode showed that the debates can bring surprises, and that substance is not everything.

Gore should also take note from similarities in the 1980 election. A New York Times report from 1980 noted that ‘Mr. Carter’s focus on detail contrasted with Mr. Reagan’s more relaxed, more genial matter’. Sound familiar? Yet when Carter pulled apart Reagan’s policies as being inconsistent with past statements, the Gipper famously deflected the charges by simply saying "There you go again". In 1984, again, Reagan faced an aggressive, articulate and knowledgeable opponent in Walter Mondale. The President managed to score what was a considered a tie, even though Mondale delivered more hits, by showing off his folksy humour and seeming more hurt than angry by his opponent’s attacks. Taking a lesson from the Reagan experience, Bush should counter Gore’s vigor as a policy expert by projecting an image of reasonableness.

On occasions the debates have produced an opportunity for a knockout or a killer line that takes an issue out of play or undermines a candidates’ credibility. In 1984 President Reagan’s age raised questions of whether he was still up to the job and was an obstacle to his re-election. The President put the issue to rest with the simple line ‘I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience’. Apparently his debate preparation book contained several pages of what his staff called ‘zingers,’ one-liners to be well rehearsed and delivered as counters to potential attacks.

Possibly the most famous one-liner to hurt a candidate occurred in the 1988 Vice Presidential debate. Dan Quayle was asked whether he had enough experience to take over from the President. When pressed on the issue Quayle compared the length of his service to that of John Kennedy when he ran for President. His opponent, Lloyd Bentsen, fired back "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy’. Although delivered as a spontaneous remark, Bentsen’s words had been prepared days earlier after a tip-off about the Kennedy comparison. The line proved to be far more memorable than anything substantive in the debate. Just days before the debate Quayle had told the press "You’re going to see the real Dan Quayle". Unfortunately for him, most people thought they did – a wooden boyish character looking like a frightened deer caught in the headlights.

The lesson Gore should draw from past history is that while a command of the issues is an essential tool, it can be completely eclipsed by a clever well-timed punch. No one can predict exactly how the debates will go. The expectation is for Gore to put in the better performance. The plus for Bush is that if he survives gaffe-free, people will declare him the winner. For Gore it will be a forum that could add to the perception that he is stronger on the issues, a factor that has played a huge part in his recent advantage in the polls. Between now and then we can expect both candidates to be cramming like they would for an exam, covering every angle, studying every fact and rehearsing every seemingly spontaneous remark – while we can merely hope that something memorable or entertaining comes out of the process.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

George Sumner is a Lawyer based in London.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by George Sumner
Related Links
The White House
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy