Trump previously said he would reject any rule changes. And he refused to participate in the second scheduled debate last week after the CPD decided on a virtual event in response to the president testing positive for the coronavirus. But in a news release, the president’s campaign manager said Trump would participate “regardless of last minute rule changes from the biased commission.”
Presidential candidates are under no obligation to participate in these media events. But Americans have become accustomed to the quadrennial spectacle of having White House hopefuls meet face-to-face to wrestle with the pressing issues of the day. But as the first Trump-Biden debate illustrated, this American political tradition has morphed from a ritual of civic education to one of chaos and confusion.
The first presidential debates took place between all the Democratic and Republican candidates who ran in 1952. In front of a live audience of about 2,500 in Cincinnati at the biennial League of Women Voters’s convention and an estimated TV viewership of tens of millions, five candidates (three Democrats and two Republicans) and one candidate’s representative answered a total of two questions. One was a question on dishonesty and inefficiency in government, and another was on foreign aid. Members of the crowd cheered for their favorite candidate. Though some of the leading candidates such as Dwight Eisenhower were not in attendance, the historic nature of the event was clear in the comparison some journalists made to the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.
After the debate, journalist Roscoe Drummond argued there should be more: “This would be good not only for the electorate. This would be good for the democratic process. And unless one or other of the nominees wanted to evade the issues, this would be good for the candidates themselves.” Drummond was not alone in his thinking, and attempts were made to organize a debate between the general election candidates. But while Adlai Stevenson agreed, Eisenhower’s top media adviser didn’t approve.
The idea, however, did not die. In 1956, a college student named Fred Kahn pushed for Eisenhower and Stevenson to visit the University of Maryland’s campus to take questions from the students. His aim was to spark the interest of his classmates, who he thought were disinterested in the election.
Kahn wrote letters to both candidates and other officials in the Democratic and Republican parties. His efforts garnered attention from the Associated Press and UPI and gained support from prominent figures such as former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Unfortunately for Kahn, the University of Maryland’s Board of Regents squashed his efforts, citing a rule banning partisan political speech on campus.
But surrogates for the candidates did debate that year. Eisenhower’s administration chose as their representative Sen. Margaret Chase Smith against Stevenson backer Eleanor Roosevelt. Though not as prominent as the former first lady, Smith was a top Eisenhower spokeswoman and had made a name for herself as one of the first to challenge Joseph McCarthy’s demagoguery and as the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress.
Two days before the 1956 election, the two met on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” becoming the first women to appear on the show. Since Roosevelt and Smith were appearing on a news program, the educational purpose of their discussion was evident. The debate focused mostly on foreign policy, and both surrogates directly answered the questions posed to them by the show’s panel of reporters. The event, however, still engendered ill will. Though Roosevelt and Smith were friends, Roosevelt was so angered by the end she refused to shake Smith’s hand after.
Four years later, the modern era of televised presidential debates began when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon met four times. Although the TV networks were eager to air the historic Nixon-Kennedy debates, they weren’t seen as moneymaking ventures, as the debates were aired without advertisements. Instead, covering the events was viewed as public service. The 1960 debates also demonstrated the growing power of television as it became increasingly central to American politics and presidential leadership. It became Americans’ primary source of political news, and debates became another way for voters to gain information through the medium.
But television was also an imperfect tool of public education, as it elevated image making over qualities such as experience, knowledge and policies. The first debate is best remembered in this capacity. It is where Kennedy exuded confidence and youthful vigor. Nixon looked tired and sweaty. As the president of CBS at the time, Frank Stanton, recalled, “Kennedy was bronzed beautifully. … Nixon looked like death.”
It took another 16 years before presidential candidates debated again. Incumbent presidents such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon didn’t want to give their opponents extra publicity by debating them. Only when incumbent Gerald Ford needed to improve his standing in the polls did he agree to square off against Jimmy Carter.
One key aspect of the debates that year was the sponsorship. From 1976 to 1984, the League of Women Voters, a civic organization formed initially to help women become more involved in politics, organized all the presidential debates. This move made it much easier for the events to bypass the equal time rules from the Federal Communications Commission, the agency charged with regulating communication technologies such as television. The league was an effective sponsor. Not only did it have experience organizing debates, but members of the group had long engaged in voter education since its founding in 1920. Following the passage of the 19th Amendment, the White women who led the organization provided Americans with nonpartisan, in-depth information on candidates and ballot issues. Sponsoring debates was a continuation of those efforts.
Everything changed in 1987, when the Commission on Presidential Debates was formed. According to the CPD, it was created “for the benefit of the American electorate” so that debates between general election presidential candidates would be “a permanent part of the electoral process.” But its formation was not without controversy. The CPD was the creation of the two major parties, which believed that they should assume “their rightful responsibility for the single most effective voter education project.” But it also strengthened the power of the very two-party system, something that angered the League of Women Voters.
Despite such protests, the CPD took over and has organized every presidential debate since 1988, while continuing to make civic education part of its mission. For example, its DebateWatch program aims to foster group conversations and reflection throughout the nation immediately following a debate.
Thus, educating voters is in the DNA of presidential debates. And the ability to have political rivals engage in open discussion before the public has been a powerful symbol of American democracy. Yet, it has also been a ritual defined by a battle for the best sound bites, precooked zingers and a focus on gaffes. From the beginning, the medium of television meant style and image often dominated rather than substance.
This duality presents a dilemma. Politics is a form of theater, and voters desire a skillful performer. But they also want serious, knowledgeable candidates. Televised debates are valuable in part because they provide a platform for candidates to show Americans both their style and substance. But most candidates struggle to balance both. Over the years, style has increasingly dominated, depriving voters of the opportunity to use debates to help make a more informed decision.
Kahn’s vision of using presidential debates to spark college students’ interest in politics may seem quaint today. Presidential debates may never live up to the vision that a civic-minded college student had 60 years ago. But that doesn’t mean Americans shouldn’t demand more from their politics and expect White House aspirants to be able to engage in a civil, informative dialogue.