The debate over debates – or more precisely, the debate over joint appearances – has begun this year earlier than ever.
Both John McCain and Barack Obama are months away from formally cementing their respective parties’ nominations, but that didn’t stop McCain from proposing a series of 10 town hall-style forums featuring both candidates over the summer months. Not surprisingly, Obama’s campaign didn’t exactly embrace the challenge, and now McCain seems to believe he has an issue with which to score political points.
He’s been highlighting Obama’s reluctance at campaign stops and showed up in New York last week at the site he’d proposed for the first forum.
“This would have been a little more interesting tonight if Senator Obama had accepted my request,” McCain told the crowd. For now, McCain plans to repeat this same trick every week between now and the conventions, appearing at his nine other proposed town hall venues and mocking his presumptive fall foe for not showing.
There’s nothing new about this tactic, of course, at any level of politics. But only under very specific and high-profile circumstances does it ever amount to anything. Otherwise, the recent example of New Jersey Congressman Rob Andrews, who challenged Senator Frank Lautenberg in this month’s Democratic primary, is the rule. Andrews made Lautenberg’s refusal to debate him the centerpiece of his campaign, spending heavily on television ads that hammered the incumbent senator on the subject. Andrews lost by 25 points. No one cared.
The presidential level is a little different than statewide politics. The general public is far more engaged in the process and in the modern era has come to expect that the candidates will meet in a series of debates in the fall. That hasn’t stopped the candidates from posturing – like McCain and Obama have lately – but only two candidates have ever paid a price for how they handled the debate over debates: Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H. W. Bush in 1992.
Debates still weren’t quite part of the presidential campaign tradition when Carter sought reelection in 1980. Besides the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, only the 1976 campaign between Carter and Gerald Ford had featured head-to-head encounters between the candidates. But Carter had publicly credited his ’76 victory to those debates and very early on in his reelection campaign pledged to participate again. So did Ronald Reagan, who emerged as the Republican nominee.
The trouble for Carter was that a third major candidate, Illinois Congressman John B. Anderson, entered the race as an independent, after his bid for the Republican nomination failed. A liberal Republican who was out of step with the Reagan wing of the G.O.P., Anderson was seen as far more likely to draw votes from Carter (even though polls would ultimately refute this notion). By early September, Carter and Reagan were running even in the polls, with Anderson drawing around 15 percent. That was enough for the League of Women Voters, which was then the chief facilitator of presidential debates, to invite Anderson to its first debate, on Sept. 21. Carter, who derisively called Anderson “an invention of the media,” refused to participate.
That posture played right into Reagan’s hands. One of Carter’s main liabilities was the perception of weakness, and now he seemed to be confirming it.
“I’ve said from the very first that if Anderson is a viable candidate, he should be a part of the debate,” Reagan said. “I can’t for the life of me understand why Mr. Carter is so afraid of him.”
By a 3-2 margin, polls showed that voters thought Carter was wrong to skip the debate, which went off without him. The television audience was small, but the mere fact that Carter didn’t show up was all that mattered. One pre-debate poll had shown Carter leading Reagan by four points. After the debate, the same survey had Reagan up five.
Only a month later, after Anderson had faded badly and the League of Women Voters decided not to include him in any more debates, did Carter agree to square off with Reagan. That encounter was what ultimately did Carter in – “There you go again,” was one of the memorable Reagan lines of the night – but his tone-deaf posture in September badly harmed him.
Twelve years later, Bush found himself in similar, though not quite as severe, trouble. By then, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates had taken over for the League of Women Voters, and in ’92 the commission scheduled a series of three debates between Bush and Bill Clinton to start in late September.
But Bush balked. The commission called for a single moderator, but Bush wanted a panel of questioners. The commission wouldn’t budge, so Bush refused to participate. Meanwhile, Clinton accepted the commission’s plan without reservation. As the date of the commission’s first scheduled debate neared and then passed, Democratic volunteers began showing up at Bush events dressed as chickens, belittling “Chicken George” for refusing to debate. The stunt earned considerable media coverage – and plainly agitated the president, who began singling out the costumed chickens for reprisal during his campaign appearances.
“You talking about the draft record chicken or are you talking about the chicken in the Arkansas River?” Bush demanded at one event. “Which one are you talking about? Which one? Get out of here. Maybe it’s the draft. Is that what’s bothering you?”
The whole spectacle was damaging to Bush, who seemed to the general public to be unreasonably avoiding debates – and to be coming unhinged as his opponents called him on it. Eventually, the Bush campaign realized this, shifted gears, and consented to three October debates (which also included Ross Perot, who re-entered the race at the start of October). But his September posturing had made Bush look afraid to stand on the same stage as his opponent.
Bush and Carter paid a price because of political clumsiness. The lesson of the modern era is clear: Voters expect debates, and you can’t duck them. This doesn’t mean voters expect an endless parade of them. As long as a candidate satisfies the public that he (or she) isn’t afraid of debates, the public will give that candidate latitude to pick and choose among proposals and formats. This is why Michael Dukakis’ call for more debates with George H. W. Bush during their second debate in 1988 fell flat. Bush refused, saying they’d debated enough, and the public agreed.
This is also why McCain’s town hall gambit won’t go anywhere. For one thing, it’s too early in the process for the masses to conclude that a candidate is ducking debates. The 18-month Democratic race just ended, and the conventions haven’t even been held. And even if Obama seems resistant to McCain’s challenge, he will also get the benefit of the doubt from most voters, since he just participated in 26 nationally televised debates during the Democratic race. It will take a lot for the public to believe that he is scared to meet McCain face-to-face.
Plus, Obama’s campaign made sure to counter McCain’s challenge with a watered-down offer of their own (basically, one town meeting – on July 4! – one summer debate on foreign policy, and three debates in the fall). It’s not much, and McCain promptly rejected it. But it allows Obama to claim that he made an offer of his own, no matter how much of a nonstarter it was.
A strong case can be made that Obama is doing himself no favors by declining McCain’s challenge. But while he may be missing an opportunity to help himself, he’s not hurting himself, either.