Our politics is dichotomized. Some would even go so far as to say our politics is polarized. Aside from the perceived neutrality of the nation’s first President, America has felt the necessity to debate. These questions have ranged from allowing African enslavement or the abolition of such; big government or less government; government sponsored health care or unbridled free market health care; and war or peace? Despite the presence of third opinions, the issues usually come down to either this or that. This was the case regarding the election of John Adams as the second President of the United States. Adams’s Vice President was Thomas Jefferson. Adams represented the Federalist Party who favored England and promoted strong central government. Jefferson represented the Democratic-Republicans who favored France and promoted states’ rights. Theirs was not a formal face to face debate, but a metaphorical debate over the direction of the country. Fast forward fifty eight years and we find the Great Debates of 1858 between Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Stephen Douglas. Although the debates were a part each person’s campaign for a Senate seat from the state of Illinois, the issue regarding African enslavement or the abolition of such was an issue that Lincoln carried into the White House and the Civil War which was one of the worst fissures in the history of the United States.
Lincoln was elected to the Office of President in 1860. One hundred years later America would witness the nation’s first televised debates. The candidates were Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Abraham Lincoln. History has well noted the outcome of the debates and perspectives on the debate. For example, reports state that those listening to the debates on radio thought that Nixon won out over Kennedy on substance. Those who viewed the debate on television thought that Kennedy was a clear winner based on style and poise. Although it was perceived that Kennedy had won on television, the election of 1960 was still a very close election. As a result, the modern presidential campaign era had begun. The question surrounding presidential debates center on whether the debates help to sway the electorate in one direction or the other.
Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were the next two presidential candidates to debate after Kennedy and Nixon. This marked a sixteen year time span before televised debates were held again. The most memorable moment from the Carter-Ford Debates came when President Gerald Ford stated that the Soviet Union does not dominate Eastern Europe. Such an answer coming in the midst of the Cold War was seen as being out of touch with political reality. One would be hard pressed to say how much this answer hurt Ford’s candidacy. He already had an uphill climb after pardoning Richard Nixon for his role in the Watergate cover up. Nevertheless, debates became an expected component of presidential politics. Ross Perot, of the Reform Party, was the first and only third party candidate to reach the debate stage with the major party candidates. He was joined in 1992 by Bill Clinton and incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush. The famous quote to emerge from this debate came from Ross Perot talking about “that giant sucking sound” created by business sending their operations and jobs to Mexico.
Presidential debates are analogous to the NFL’s dictum of “any given Sunday.” This phrase means that on any given Sunday an underdog team can defeat a heavily favored team. Al Gore underperformed against George W. Bush. It was widely anticipated that Gore would soundly defeat Bush in the debate and go on to claim the White House. However, when Gore put in lack luster performances, his campaign lost some momentum. Nevertheless, Gore garnered more of the popular vote than Bush. Yet, Bush was able to secure the White House given the fact that it is the Electoral College which elects the President. Another surprising moment claim in the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2008. Once again, given Obama’s masterful speaking skills, he was heavily favored to defeat Romney. On the debate night Romney came out swinging and Obama never recovered. Obama supporters went into a severe depression. Supporters attempted to put the best spin on Obama’s performance by saying he was simply using the Ali “rope a dope” to make Romney over exert himself only to fissile out by the time all the debates were concluded. One cannot say for sure that Obama had such a long range debate strategy, but by the end of the debates Romney seemed hobbled and was deferring to Obama’s expertise on foreign policy.
We are currently in the midst of the 2016 debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Hillary is no stranger to debates. She and Obama faced off in an epic struggle for the Democratic nomination in 2008. Most pundits say that Hillary Clinton won the first debate. Moreover, the first debate was the most watched presidential debate with more than eighty million viewers. As of this writing we are approaching the second debate with perhaps the highest stakes in a presidential contest. During the weekend approaching the second debate between Clinton and Trump, a video emerged showing Trump boasting about some of his sexual exploits and even alluding to behavior that is nothing less than sexual assault. By the time this article is read the second debate will have concluded. The airwaves will be filled commentators assessing the outcome. One thing that is certain is that this latest installment of Presidential debates will have been one of the more dramatic and intense debates of this long saga of individuals hoping to curve the debate stage in their favor.
Anthony Neal earned his Ph.D. in political science at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). Dr. Neal is an associate professor at State University College, Buffalo. The author of numerous book reviews and journal articles, he has had his work published in the Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Black Studies, and Black Issues in Higher Education. In 2014 Dr. Neal received the university’s Faculty Appreciation Award, was named Instructor of the Year by the university’s United Student Government, and Professor of the Year by the Student Political Society in the Department of Political Science. In 2015, he published The American Political Narrative which is a succinct yet poignant narrative about the development of the American political system and what is needed to maintain it. In 2016, he will publish a book of poetry entitled “Love Agnostic | from 9/11 to Charleston”
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