Political debates are not a new phenomenon.
On the verge of presidential debates for 2016, I am kind of excited, but you have to know I am a political “junkie.” I have not heard too many other people claim the same sentiments. Maybe people have already made up their minds as to who to vote for. Or maybe they are tired of all the media exposure. Who knows what the reasons may be?
For the average citizen, the relevant questions might have to do with my job, my health, health insurance, or my family. For a few people, it might be a question of, will the debate take from my favorite TV shows, or Monday Night Football?
Potential strategies have been discussed and rehearsed days ahead of the performance. Unless there are some grave mistakes or blundering gaffes, the debates probably won’t change anyone’s mind. However, it does give us a glimpse of what the next four year’s will be like.
To put things in perspective, political debates are not a new phenomenon.
History records one of the most dramatic debates on the eve of the American Civil War. This debate featured the political agendas of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. They were both competing for the senate seat from Illinois. State legislatures chose U.S. Senators in those days.
I would have loved to have been there. Without any social media and a platform devoid of modern technology, Lincoln and Douglas sparred on the question of slavery. It was a national issue that split our nation in two. In addition, our great state was born out of the fires of that war. Can you imagine what the audience might have envisioned in this confrontation between the 6-foot, 4-inch Lincoln and the diminutive Douglas, who stood at 5 feet, 4 inches?
We are not entirely sure who won the debate. We do know Douglas won the senate seat from Illinois. Lincoln who was a former Whig became the new Republican Party candidate for president in 1860. The two squared off with two other candidates running for president. Lincoln won the election with a minority of the vote. Lincoln’s name was not even on the ballot in the south.
So by winning the election, Lincoln basically split the union. The Republican Party took a strong stand against the extension of slavery in the new territories. This is the backdrop in which Kansas entered the union as our 34th state.
To bring us back to our present day, are any of the issues we face today as dangerous as those faced by President Lincoln in 1860? Are the issues we face today as great as those facing Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 prior to Pearl Harbor and World War II?
No one can answer that definitively. We live in a very volatile and, at times, dangerous world. These debates become opportunities for candidates to show us what they can do under pressure. In many ways, the stakes could be just as high as when Lincoln or Roosevelt was elected President.
There will be a total of three presidential debates. What is the value in these debates? How much do they influence voters? I am not sure we have the means to determine how many votes are shaped as a result of the debates. Most experts speculate that many voters opinions are confirmed by the debates.
The first presidential debate I remember in my lifetime was the famous Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960. As the record indicates Kennedy won the debate, more on style than substance. Kennedy came across as a young and energetic candidate, with new and fresh ideas. Vice-President Nixon, on the other hand, was portrayed as a sullen candidate with a five o’clock shadow. In reality, Nixon probably had a deeper grasp of the issues than Kennedy, but the powerful image of television proved to be the difference in the debate and the election. President Eisenhower’s somewhat lukewarm endorsement of Nixon did not help his chances either. Kennedy, nevertheless, had to overcome his age (43) an religion (Catholic) to win the presidency. His administration was marked by cold war intrigue, including the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Berlin Confrontation with Soviet Russia.
One can always play the “What if game.” What if Nixon had been elected in 1960 instead of 1968? Watergate might have happened earlier or never at all. And, of course, the Kennedy assassination would not have taken place.
It is mindless to keep speculating. However, the first televised debates in 1960 changed the course of history. Will the debates in 2016 have the same effect on history? A person just never knows.
—Dwight Goering is a Moundridge resident.