Julian Zelizer: '08 debates may resonate like Carter-Reagan

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of “Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s” (Harvard University Press) and is completing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II.]

John McCain and Barack Obama will square off Sept. 26 in the first presidential debate. This televised event — and the two others that will follow in October — will potentially play a decisive role this year, allowing one of the candidates to break free from the deadlocked poll numbers that have defined the contest thus far.

In close elections with significant numbers of undecided voters, debates can become true turning points. Consider the lone debate of the 1980 presidential contest between Republican Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter, which proved essential to the outcome in November.

Although we like to think of a Reagan Revolution in 1980, in reality, throughout September and early October, large numbers of voters were on the fence about which candidate to choose. While Carter was an unpopular president facing a stagnant economy and a hostage crisis in Iran, many voters feared that Reagan was too extreme and not very intelligent.

Reagan and Carter had not debated before Oct. 28. The League of Women Voters had sponsored a debate on Sept. 21, but Carter had refused to join because third-party candidate John Anderson — a Republican congressman from Illinois whose appeal to independents posed a greater threat to Carter than to Reagan — had been allowed to participate.

After the debate between Reagan and Anderson, the pressure for a Reagan-Carter matchup intensified in mid-October. The president — despite numerous advisers who told him he would lose support by allowing Reagan to appear more reasonable than Democrats had hoped and who feared the president’s skills were rusty, since he had not debated since 1976 — was confident that he would appear more experienced and knowledgeable than his opponent. Anderson’s support, moreover, had fallen below the 15 percent threshold required to participate.

Reagan was bolstered by his great performance at the Alfred E. Smith Dinner on Oct. 16 and believed that he needed to debate the president to counter his new momentum.

The buildup to the debate and its proximity to Election Day heightened the atmosphere surrounding the event. Carter adviser Hamilton Jordan recalled that “polls showed that people had quit making up their minds. It was as if the entire election had been put on hold, waiting for the debate.” Journalist Elizabeth Drew compared the debate to “the world heavyweight championship and the Super Bowl combined.”

When debate night finally came, Carter demonstrated an impressive command of the details of public policy and the issues facing the nation. But Reagan offered a superb performance in front of the cameras.

During one of the most dramatic moments, Carter was delivering a professorial statement about the problems in the health care system and accusing Reagan of having opposed the creation of Medicare in 1965. The president was trying to show his superior knowledge and dismiss Reagan as an extremist — the twin goals of the Democratic campaign.

As Carter was speaking, the cameras panned to Reagan, who was visibly chuckling at the president. He looked like a major league hitter who just saw the pitch he was waiting for. Rather than offering a point-by-point rejoinder, Reagan mocked the president and followed up with a classic quip: “There you go again.”

Carter made other mistakes. At one point, the president said that he had been talking to his 13-year-old daughter, Amy, about the most important issues of the day and she had said that she was most worried about nuclear war. Carter’s intention was to show how widespread the fear of nuclear catastrophe had become, with even children thinking about the issue, but the statement made Carter look like a president seeking counsel from his young daughter.

In his closing statement, Reagan, with one line, devastated Carter by asking, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

The rest was history. Most of the polls that came out showed that Reagan had performed much better than Carter. During the week that followed, the polls broke in Reagan’s favor. Undecided voters started to decide, and they didn’t like the president.

The debate was certainly not the only factor at work. The Sunday before the election, a few days after the debate, Carter had gone on television to announce that there would probably not be a resolution to the hostage crisis before the election.

But the debate was central, as Reagan came out of the event looking poised and having undermined Carter’s attempts to frame him. The results constituted a historic Electoral College landslide, with Reagan winning 489 electoral votes.

There have been many other moments when televised debates were decisive. In 1960, John F. Kennedy came out of his debate with Richard Nixon looking like the more energetic and charismatic candidate. In 1976, President Gerald Ford’s terrible performance, when he suggested Eastern Europe was not under the control of the Soviet Union, compounded doubts about his intelligence and reminded conservatives of his loyalty to détente. In 2000, Al Gore’s sighs made him appear arrogant.

Television debates are imperfect, to be sure. They can be shallow, they can focus on irrelevant questions and they often give more attention to the questioners than the candidates. But like them or not, they can have a huge effect on the outcome of the election, particularly in a race — such as the one we face today — where the polls show a dead heat.

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