Sunday, October 17, 2004

Debating Your Way to Defeat

The New York Times
October 17, 2004

Debating Your Way to Defeat

Washington — Smoking a pipe in his Kansas City hotel room just before the 1976 Republican convention, behind by 30 points in some polls, President Gerald Ford told advisers that he had to "do something dramatically different" to win re-election. What he did enhanced American democracy, but it has been a specter for incumbent presidents ever since - and it may yet come to haunt President Bush.

Accepting his party's nomination in the Kemper Arena on Aug. 19, Mr. Ford declared, "I am eager to go before the American people and debate the real issues face to face with Jimmy Carter." Mr. Ford's gamble began a modern tradition of televised presidential debates. This tradition has had one important and, for Mr. Ford at least, unintended effect: presidents don't win re-election as often as they used to.

During the 80 years before Mr. Ford's challenge to Jimmy Carter, only two presidents lost: William Howard Taft, who suffered from a once-in-a-lifetime party split, and Herbert Hoover, who presided over the worst economic depression in American history. In contrast, during the 28 years since Mr. Ford threw down the gauntlet, three incumbent presidents - Mr. Ford himself, Mr. Carter and George H. W. Bush - have lost re-election. And if the latest polls on the current race have any meaning, a fourth defeated president is a distinct possibility.

No sane person would argue that a challenger can beat a sitting president simply by going on television with him as an apparent equal and criticizing him to his face. But, as John Kerry - who used his three debates to close the gap with President Bush in most major polls - would surely attest, it can provide a glittering opportunity.

The power of televised debates as an anti-incumbent weapon revealed itself as early as 1960, with the encounters between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, which occurred in one of the meanest years of the cold war. Before those debates, many Americans considered the seemingly callow, absentee junior senator from Massachusetts no match for the worldly vice president, who had acted in Eisenhower's stead during the president's three major illnesses and who had stood up to the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, in their much-ballyhooed Moscow "kitchen debate."

But Kennedy's televised performance against Nixon gave him presidential stature. As Nixon later said, "The incumbent or whoever represents an incumbent administration will generally be at a disadvantage in debate because his opponent can attack while he must defend." After Kennedy won the election, he said, motioning toward a TV set, "We wouldn't have had a prayer without that gadget."

After 1960 and until Mr. Ford's fateful decision in 1976, incumbent presidents used any excuse - even ridiculous ones - to avoid such unpredictable events. Lyndon Johnson, for example, insisted that appearing with his Republican rival, Barry Goldwater, would be unfair to third-party candidates like Earle Harold Munn of the Prohibition Party. They were abiding by the logic of Dwight Eisenhower's press secretary, Jim Hagerty, who said after the 1960 debates, "You can bet your bottom dollar that no incumbent president will ever engage in any such debate or joint appearance in the future."

After 1976, however, it was harder for an incumbent to deny his challenger a forum. And President Jimmy Carter, who had benefited from the new tradition that year, was its second casualty.

Ronald Reagan's lone television debate against Mr. Carter, a week before the 1980 election, helped him vault from a statistical dead heat to an electoral landslide. Mr. Carter's handlers had hoped to fan suspicions that Mr. Reagan was an empty suit - a former actor who could not possibly cope with grave menaces like 21 percent interest rates and Soviet armies marching through Afghanistan. Like George W. Bush's team a generation later, Mr. Carter's strategists tried to keep the opponent "from reaching the 'plausibility threshold.' " Mr. Carter was advised to make frequent references to his office in the debate, and he complied - literally, with no less than 10 mentions of the decisions he made and pressure he faced "in the Oval Office."

Mr. Carter let Mr. Reagan speak first, as his aide Hamilton Jordan recalled, hoping that Mr. Reagan wouldn't feel "psychologically prepared to find himself standing toe-to-toe with the president of the United States." But Mr. Reagan was not intimidated. He proceeded to give a performance that remains the template for how to debate a sitting president without quite crossing the line into insolence. When Mr. Carter told Mr. Reagan that his attitude toward the Soviet Union was "dangerous and belligerent," Mr. Reagan scored by replying that he was "like the witch doctor that gets mad when the doctor comes along with a cure that'll work."

Running for re-election in 1984, Mr. Reagan was never at serious risk of losing his job, but his first debate allowed his challenger, former Vice President Walter Mondale, to pull almost even in the polls - albeit briefly - thanks to Mr. Reagan's halting performance, which aroused public anxiety about his age and health. But this time a president was protected by his incumbency. Asked in 1990 why he did not in their second encounter "go after" Mr. Reagan on "whether he had the mental capacity to function," Mr. Mondale said such a strategy would have backfired. "I would have been spanked," he said, for failing to respect the presidency.

When President George H. W. Bush debated Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992, Mr. Clinton established his credentials against the charge that he was merely the "failed governor of a small state." Voters were able to compare Mr. Clinton with the president who had presided over the end of the cold war. As Mr. Clinton recalled in 2000, they wanted reassurance about his foreign policy expertise and knowledge of national issues. "I just wanted to try to make sure that people had no questions about my competence when the debate was over," he said.

Like George H. W. Bush in 1992, Gerald Ford in 1976 presumed that his debates against Jimmy Carter would demonstrate his stature and foreign policy experience in contrast to that of a little-known Southern governor. But when Mr. Ford insisted that there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration," many voters thought the emperor had shown that he had no clothes.

In retrospect, we know that Mr. Ford meant that he would never accept the Soviet control of Eastern Europe. But at the time it wasn't clear, and Mr. Carter exploited the opening: "I would like to see Mr. Ford convince the Polish-Americans and the Czech-Americans and the Hungarian-Americans in this country that those countries don't live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain." Despite damage control efforts by Mr. Ford's chief of staff, Dick Cheney, some voters suspected that the president might not be everything he was cracked up to be.

Mr. Ford went on to lose in 1976, of course; the first incumbent president to open himself to debate may have been the first victim of the tradition he started. Mr. Carter later said that if it weren't for televised debates, he could never have defeated an incumbent president. If John Kerry should defeat George W. Bush this year, he may well say the same thing.

Michael Beschloss is the author, most recently, of "The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany."