The first general-election presidential debates, those between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, took place in 1960, when no incumbent was in the race. It was generally believed then that no incumbent president would, or should, agree to participate in a debate. Merely appearing on stage would elevate the challenger to equal stature and surrender even the pretense of being president of all the people, somehow above the political fray. Moreover, unless he had survived a primary challenge, the sitting president might well be out of shape for debates. The challenger, presumably, would have honed his skills through a large number of primary-election tests and would have well-articulated positions. Why should a president forfeit the advantages of his position and elevate his opponent to symbolic equality?
After 1960, there were no debates for the next three election cycles. One reason given — both by Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and by Richard Nixon in 1972 — for refusing to debate was that it was not appropriate for a sitting president to do so. (While there was there was no incumbent in 1968, Nixon had other political reasons to avoid debates.)
True, debates occurred in 1976 even with an incumbent, but that was a special case. Gerald Ford was an unelected president, and coming out of the nominating conventions, he was 33 points behind in the polls and desperate. So he took the unprecedented step of challenging the challenger, Jimmy Carter, to debate. Carter reasoned that debates would make him better known and that his lead in the polls was safe. Four years later, Carter was the incumbent; he hardly could refuse to debate after Ford had been willing to debate against him.
It was 1984, President Ronald Reagan was way ahead in the polls, headed toward a landslide re-election.. When invited to engage in debates by the sponsor, he accepted without hesitation. That action largely institutionalized debates and established the norm that even incumbents would participate.
Debates have not been a great benefit to incumbents. Reagan’s halting performance in the first 1984 debate reopened questions about whether he was too old and out of touch. (He put them to rest with a quip in the second debate.) In 1992, George H.W. Bush threatened not to debate until hecklers appeared at his rallies waving signs picturing a chicken. Then he appeared uncomfortable, especially in the town hall debate. In 2004, George W. Bush seemed to lack command of specifics when trying to defend his policy in Iraq, and generally was regarded as the loser in the debates.
And the drama of the 2012 debates revolved around how President Barack Obama lost and then regained stature by means of his debate performances. In my lecture at UNLV, I will explore what went wrong for Obama in the first debate and how it related to his position as incumbent. Then I will consider whether and how he was able to recover. And finally, we'll discuss how this all relates to the debates in 2016, a year when there is no incumbent.
About the Author
David Zarefsky is Owen L. Coon Professor Emeritus of Argumentation and Debate at Northwestern University. He teaches courses in the history and criticism of U.S. public discourse, with a special focus on the pre-Civil War period and on the 1960s, and also teaches courses in argumentation and in Presidential rhetoric. Among his publications as well as six other books and over 70 scholarly articles concerned with American public discourse (both historical and contemporary), argumentation, rhetorical criticism, and public speaking are books on the Lincoln-Douglas debates and on the rhetoric of the war on poverty during the Johnson administration. He is president of the Rhetoric Society of America, 2006-2007, and is a past president of the National Communication Association and the Central States Communication Association.