The first debate rides on history

Thursday, September 15, 2016
Charles W. Dunn - Guest Columnist

Dunn, Charles (Regent Univ.)If history is the best predictor of the future, then the first presidential debate on September 26 will determine who moves into the Oval Office.

In 1960, underdog John F. Kennedy won the first debate – and the tide of polling changed history. Significantly, he won on television, not on radio, where Richard Nixon, the lawyer, got the better of Kennedy in oral argumentation.

But Kennedy won where it counted, using the visual medium of television to offer an attractive appearance and inspiring words, such as "New Frontier" and "Let's get the country moving again." Nixon's pale appearance and less-inspiring rhetoric cost him the first debate and the presidency. Had Nixon not debated Kennedy, he would likely have won the presidency; but he did, and the first debate cost Nixon his lead in the polls.

Similarly, critics in 1980 looked skeptically at Ronald Reagan's prospects, deeming him not up to the task either of winning the first debate against Jimmy Carter or of serving as president. But the first debate changed that. Reagan not only proved that he was up to winning the debate, but he also reset the notion that he was insufficiently presidential. Like Kennedy before him, Reagan demonstrated that an attractive physical appearance and well-chosen rhetoric can be a winning combination.

Behind the eight ball?

"[Hillary Clinton] will be going into that first debate behind the eight ball. The polls are now against her, Donald Trump is beginning to move ahead of her, [and he] has superior debating skill to her. And she would go in weakened by the deceit that she's practiced with regard to her health.

"We know that she has had a number of health problems over quite a few years – that's the testimony of her husband. And we know that she tried to cover up this latest health problem. But more than that, she has not vigorously campaigned. So I look at her situation as problematic."

Charles W. Dunn

2016 Presidential Debate Schedule

Now we turn to 2016.

Critics generally regard Hillary Clinton as the better prepared to serve as president, and that Donald Trump's credentials pale in comparison to hers. They argue her long years of experience at the highest levels of government and legal training at Yale enable her to address issues thoroughly and convincingly. Moreover, they point out she set her sights on the presidency long ago while Donald Trump was climbing his way to the top of the real-estate profession, which makes him look like Johnny-come-lately to the presidential race.

"Let Trump Be Trump" has been the hallmark of the Clinton campaign, believing that the billionaire's inexperience – but even more so, his temperament – will prove costly to his campaign. Both have proved true ... but as the first debate looms on the horizon, not so. For it's not Trump who should fear the debate, but Clinton.

Like Richard Nixon before her, Mrs. Clinton, the erudite candidate, has everything to lose and nothing to gain; while Donald Trump – just as John Kennedy in 1960 – has nothing to lose and everything to gain. But one more thing: the polls have tightened in Trump's favor, making the first debate all the more important and increasing the pressure on Clinton.

How was it that Trump handily dispatched 16 opponents to the loser's bracket in the race for the Republican nomination? His commanding physical presence, passion, and use of rhetorical tattoos set him apart. "Low-energy Jeb," "Lyin' Ted," and other tattoos put in the minds of listeners negative and fundamental conclusions about his opponents. And now his "Crooked Hillary" tattoo has done that to the former secretary of state – to the point that every jot and tittle of corruption in the Clinton campaign makes that tattoo all the more indelible.

Trump brings to debates an ability to think on his feet and to turn negatives into positives. For example, when FOX debate moderator Megyn Kelly asked Trump in the first Republican debate a potent "I gotcha" question about the bad names he had called women, he never flinched, responding: "Only Rosie O'Donnell" – leaving the audience laughing and Kelly holding an empty sack of an answered question.

Experience and erudition didn't win the first debate for either Nixon or Carter – nor will they for Clinton, if history is the best predictor of the future. But taking command of the debate stage with his physical presence, passion, rhetorical tattoos, and repartee could win it for Trump.

Charles W. Dunn ( is Professor Emeritus of political science at Clemson University; and Distinguished Professor Emeritus and former Dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He currently resides in South Carolina.

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