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Like the debates? Thank Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton

What’s the most overlooked story this week?

It’s something that is overlooked because it didn’t happen – the debate over the debates. As far as I know, there was absolutely no question at all that presidential debates would happen this year, and any arguments about format were settled long ago and without any publicity at all.

And it’s worth pointing out because it’s sort of a miracle that the presidential debates have been so thoroughly institutionalized. After all, many statewide elections still have debates only sometimes or have debates totally on the terms of the leading candidate (who has the option of walking and therefore all the leverage in negotiations).

The credit for this? I’d say it goes primarily to the first two incumbent presidents who agreed to debate despite leading solidly in the polls: Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Neither had to do it, Reagan in particular. At that point, debates had happened only in two consecutive cycles, both of which had incumbents in serious trouble; the last two incumbents who had easy reelections, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, had refused to debate. Had Reagan simply refused — and his staff must have known that there was a good chance he would lose debates to Walter Mondale — it’s unlikely a fuss over that would have jeopardized Reagan’s chances as much as a terrible debate performance might have.

So by now, it’s fully institutionalized: no chance of one candidate refusing and no annoying “debate over the debates” stretching on for weeks. Whether you love the debates or hate them, it’s worth remembering that they didn’t have to happen.

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