Earl Ofari Hutchinson's take on the politics of the day
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Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton reportedly has spent countless hours sequestered with a team of advisors, analysts, and debate coaches preparing for her round of debates with GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump. They’re throwing every kind of question and attack point that they can think of at her to get ready to parry either Trump’s bombastic attacks or pirouette and deal with a kinder, gentler, calmer and more focused Trump. The point is not just to one-up Trump, and score more debate brownie points, but to dial her poll numbers up a notch over Trump. Presidential candidates see debates as their chance to really shine before millions and show that they, not the other guy, or in this case woman, is really not in their league as a fit match for the Oval Office.
The blunt reality is that doesn’t make much difference what Trump or Clinton have to say about each other and policy issues. It won’t change the fact that presidential debates make good theater but not much more. Studies back that up and show that a majority of voters feel they don’t learn much from the debates, and are disappointed at that. Even the minority of respondents who say they learn something from the debates insist that they don’t influence their decision on who to vote for. Party affiliation, long-standing political preferences, personal beliefs and values largely determine that.
Richard Nixon, more than any other presidential candidate in modern times, found that out the hard way. The widely held belief is that Nixon’s fidgety, wooden style, and unkempt appearance in his first 1960 televised debate with a relaxed, tanned, youthful looking John F. Kennedy did him in.
In their two follow-up debates, though, a much better composed and relaxed Nixon came off as having as good, if not better, command of the issues than Kennedy. His perceived debate loss to Kennedy didn’t finish him. Yet, it sealed the belief that an afternoon shadow, mussed hair, a malapropism, and a gaffe during a debate will make or break presidents and their challengers. That’s a myth. In 1976, President Ford’s bid for a full elected term supposedly went down the tubes when he blurted out that Poland wasn’t under Soviet domination during his debate with Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter. Presumably, that gaffe shot to pieces Ford’s credibility on vital foreign policy issues. But Ford could not shake Republican blame for the Watergate scandal, and his pardon of Nixon. This more than his debate miscue did him in.
In 1980, it was thought that Republican challenger Ronald Reagan’s carefully scripted and rehearsed “There you go again” retort to Jimmy Carter when he accused him of wanting to slash Medicare so befuddled Carter that his re-election bid came unglued. But by the time of their debate, Carter’s presidency was badly tattered. Voters blamed him for high inflation, unemployment, waves of business failures, and the bungled Iran hostage rescue mission.
In 1988, Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis’ automaton-like answer in his debate with Vice President Bush Sr. to the loaded question about the death penalty supposedly blew his presidential bid. But Bush Sr. carried Reagan’s imprimatur. The Reagan administration gave the appearance of fostering an economic boom, had stunning foreign policy successes marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and stratospheric public approval ratings.
In his debate with Democratic challenger Bill Clinton in 1992, President Bush Sr. repeatedly glanced at his watch and seemed impatient to get the debate over. That allegedly soured voters on him. That did not torpedo his re-election bid. Bush’s inability to resuscitate the economy and urban racial turmoil badly hurt him. What really nailed him was the insurgent campaign of Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot. He siphoned off thousands of potential Republican votes.
In 2000, George W. Bush came off as personable, witty, and conversational in his debate with Democrat Al Gore. By contrast Gore was perceived as stiff, arrogant, and condescending. Yet, many experts believed that despite Gore’s personality glitches, he still beat Bush on the issues. Gore went on to win the popular vote. It took the Florida vote debacle and a Supreme Court ruling to settle the matter for Bush.
In the 2008 and 2012 debates between Obama and respectively McCain and Romney, the debates were pretty much seen as a draw. But the draw had almost nothing to do with any perceived erudition of either of the candidates on the issues. The voters that liked Obama liked him just as much or at least no less after the debates than before. The same held true for McCain and Romney.
Trump versus Clinton will be good for the ratings, good TV watching for legions of viewers, and a good chance for Clinton and Trump’s backers to cheer wildly for their guy or woman when they score a hit on a point. But after the cheers and telecast end they’ll still be just as likely to vote for Clinton or Trump as they were before the two took center stage.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of How “President” Trump will Govern, (Amazon Kindle) He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.