Republican Richard M. Nixon in 1968 was the last non-incumbent presidential candidate to refuse to debate his Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey. In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon became the last incumbent chief executive to refuse to debate his general election opponent. Since Nixon, Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton have all debated the last four as both challenger and incumbent.
This is by way of saying that despite all his bluffing and counter-bluffing, all his allegedly non-negotiable demands about rearranging the format or the furniture, Texas Gov. George W. Bush will debate Vice President Al Gore on TV this autumn more than once. Televised presidential debates have become an American tradition. And this is a good thing.
"The debates are the closest thing to a job interview the presidential nominees will ever have before the people who hire them and for whom they work -- the American voters," in the considered judgment of debate expert Diana Carlin. Before the debates, ordinary voters were forced to rely on the received judgment of their higher-ups or better-offs. For all their limitations, the presidential debates do afford a vivid picture of two (or more) would-be presidents under enormous pressure. How they handle and respond to that public stress their poise, confidence and judgment can be instructive for voters who are making the most personal of all political choices, the selection of a single national leader.
In at least two presidential elections, the debates were decisive. In 1960, when 43-year-old John F. Kennedy was running to succeed the nation's oldest and arguably most uniquely experienced chief executive, Dwight Eisenhower, the relative inexperience of the young Democrat was deemed to be a major liability to his election. When JFK in the first TV debate against two-term Vice President Richard M. Nixon more than held his own, the experience issue was all but erased. That year, 90 percent of the U.S. adult population watched at least one of the four (still a record) Kennedy-Nixon debates.
In 1980, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan's opponents with a boost from the Gipper's own recklessly bellicose one-liners, caricatured the conservative champion as a mad bomber or even a war mongerer. That ended on a Sunday night in Cleveland when an avuncular, non-threatening Reagan shared the same stage with President Jimmy Carter and stilled the fears of millions.
Presidential nominees and their campaigns have available almost unlimited press and media options through which they can either make their own case or criticize their opponent's positions or personality. A nominee can accept all or none of the innumerable network forums offered to him. As nominees and the press must regularly be reminded, the campaign belongs to the voters.
Away from their media consultants, without TelePrompTers or cue cards, the presidential nominees standing side by side afford voters a sustained, unrehearsed view of their psyche, stamina and sense of humor.
The Los Angeles Times 1992 election day poll of live voters as they exited the polling place found that 70 percent had judged the presidential debates that year helpful to them in making their choice for president.
Can the debates be improved? You bet. For one thing, direct questioning and exchanges between the candidates would be a major improvement. But the GOP campaign would be wise to stop the Midland Waffle and listen to this recent editorial from the Boston Herald, a paper most friendly to the party's nominee: "It would be a fine idea, indeed, if Republican presidential contender George W. Bush would stop equivocating and agree to participate in the forums arranged by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. ...
"Prepackaged speeches are all well and good, but voters want to see how a presidential candidate performs on his feet not reading from a script.
"The more Bush procrastinates here, the less sure of himself he seems. Weakness isn't a quality voters look for in presidents."
Bring on the debates.
Mark Shields is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.