Debates tell us a lot about those who would be president


For de­cades, it was a mat­ter of con­vic­tion among po­lit­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als that most Amer­i­cans didn’t be­gin to fo­cus on the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion un­til af­ter the World Ser­ies. That’s just one of many old chest­nuts that have been chucked out the win­dow in the new age. 

The old for­mula won’t work any­more. So the new short­hand is that the de­ci­sive phase of the elec­tion be­gins with the first de­bate, which will be Wed­nes­day night at the Univer­sity of Den­ver.

It may seem that pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns have sev­eral re­sets, most re­cently the du­el­ing na­tional po­lit­i­cal con­ven­tions. There’s some truth to that. 

But the twin ac­cep­tance speeches of late sum­mer were cam­paign set pieces, with ev­ery el­e­ment — venue, set­ting, length, topic, at­mo­spher­ics, in­clud­ing the po­dium and the teleprompt­ers — con­trolled by the can­di­dates’ hired hands. There were no un­cer­tain­ties, no hid­den ob­sta­cles, no op­por­tu­ni­ties for forced er­rors.

Wed­nes­day is dif­fer­ent in ev­ery way. The cam­paigns have been in­volved in ne­go­ti­a­tions with the bi­par­ti­san Com­mis­sion on Pres­i­den­tial De­bates that over­sees the events and reg­u­lates the con­di­tions. 

But the dif­fer­ence is that a live, tele­vised pres­i­den­tial de­bate is an op­por­tu­nity to see can­di­dates in­ter­act with each other, han­dle un­an­tic­i­pated thrusts and par­ries, and in rare but re­veal­ing oc­ca­sions show spon­ta­ne­ity.

It is great the­ater. But it is also il­lu­mi­nat­ing the­ater, even if some of the best lines (“There you go again,” for­mer Gov. Ron­ald Rea­gan said to Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter in 1980) have been scripted.

There have been sev­eral re­veal­ing mo­ments, un­for­get­ta­ble el­e­ments of de­bate folk­lore. Such as the ex­as­per­ated sighs of Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore dur­ing his de­bate with Gov. George W. Bush in Boston in 2000. Or the dev­as­tat­ing glimpse of Pres­i­dent George H.W. Bush look­ing at his wrist­watch in Rich­mond in 1992, as if to sug­gest that he couldn’t wait to get off the stage he shared with Bill Clin­ton.

“I saw him look­ing at his watch,” Mr. Clin­ton said in an in­ter­view four years ago. “And I thought, I felt, when I saw it, that he was, you know, un­com­fort­able in that set­ting and wanted it to be over with.”

No one knows for sure whether de­bates change his­tory. An en­dur­ing piece of con­ven­tional wis­dom is that Sen. John. Ken­nedy won the 1960 elec­tion be­cause he looked ro­bust and ap­peal­ing in his crisp blue suit in his first de­bate while his op­po­nent, Vice Pres­i­dent Rich­ard Nixon, looked fa­tigued and wan, es­pe­cially be­cause he was wear­ing a gray suit.

The im­pact of this de­bate — and whether in fact the peo­ple who saw it on tele­vi­sion thought Mr. Ken­nedy had won, while those who heard it on the ra­dio thought that Mr. Nixon had won — has it­self been a sub­ject of de­bate for a half cen­tury. But there is no de­bate on this: It’s not op­ti­mal to ap­pear to per­spire or to fade into the back­ground in a gray suit.

A sep­a­rate de­bate has sprouted in re­cent years, ques­tion­ing whether these events mat­ter. John Sides, a George Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, wrote in the cur­rent Wash­ing­ton Monthly: “What his­tory can tell us is that pres­i­den­tial de­bates, while part of how the game is played, are rarely what de­cides the game it­self.”

Mr. Sides cites sev­eral stud­ies — plus a 1960 Gallup poll show­ing that Mr. Nixon led by a sin­gle point be­fore­hand and fell be­hind by 3 points af­ter­ward, which may be statis­ti­cally in­sig­nifi­cant — to sup­port his ar­gu­ment.

But they are part of the pro­cess, and it is im­pos­sible to say in ad­vance what might be­come an im­por­tant cam­paign sym­bol in ret­ro­spect.

Wed­nes­day’s de­bate will in­clude six 15-minute seg­ments, half of them on the econ­omy. One will be on the role of gov­ern­ment, and here the two can­di­dates might pro­vide some valu­able in­sights into their phi­los­o­phy. The As­so­ci­ated Press and the Na­tional Con­sti­tu­tion Center this month re­leased a poll show­ing that only two in five Amer­i­cans be­lieve the gov­ern­ment is as­sur­ing the well-be­ing of Amer­i­cans.

That find­ing sug­gests a se­ries of search­ing ques­tions, ex­am­in­ing whether the nom­i­nees be­lieve the gov­ern­ment is fail­ing to ad­dress Amer­i­cans’ needs or whether they be­lieve the cur­rent con­cep­tion of the gov­ern­ment’s role is in­ap­pro­pri­ate to the times.

Whether pres­i­den­tial de­bates change the out­come is prob­a­bly a lot less im­por­tant than whether they in­form the elec­tor­ate. 

This is pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics, not a World Ser­ies game. In fact, this year the de­bates will be over be­fore the Ser­ies is.

David Shrib­man is ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the Pitts­burgh Post-Ga­zette.

Con­tact him at: dshrib­man@post-ga­