To be sure, I don't want to be arguing that we'd have been better off if Nixon had been elected in 1960 rather than 1968. Suffice it to say, lots of things would have been Different, whether we want to talk about the Cuba War, how the various civil rights acts would have fared, what the modern conservative movement might have been like without the Goldwater disaster or the Great Society excesses to push them over the edge, etc.
But I've always had this silly idea that elections should be decided on issues
and I figure Kennedy's harping on the "missile gap" should be prominent on the All-Time List of Bogus Campaign Issues. In the end, radio listeners, who thought Kennedy and Nixon both did about equally well, were outnumbered by the millions of TV viewers who knew immediately that there was no way they could ever vote for a guy who could sweat directly from his forehead down across his entire face, who could sweat from places you would never imagine had sweat glands, who could... well, you get the idea. The 1960 election, in effect, was decided by rivers of sweat. Nixon quite sensibly vowed 'never again,' and thus the country was spared this useless spectacle for another 16 years.
Since 1976, we've been treated to
- Gerald Ford's supposed "gaffe" about Poland --- taken in context, it was actually a fairly sensible statement about how the Polish people would never accept Soviet domination --- but of course the media had so much more fun taking it out of context, they would never cut him a break after that.
- The stomping out of John Anderson's candidacy in 1980. He was surging 10-15% in the polls when the League of Women Voters decided to cave in to Carter's demand that he not be invited to the second debate --ultimately an incredibly self-defeating move, given how Anderson was drawing huge amounts of support from Republican moderates who had trouble with Reagan's (what was then considered) hard-line conservatism -- after which Anderson dropped back into single digits because nobody could take him seriously anymore.
- That all-important second debate where Reagan got to unleash his patented "there you go again" line and his cavalcade of stupid anecdotes. And, of course, once the press latched onto the Amy-Carter-as-nuclear-weapons-advisor meme, Carter was toast.
- That utterly insane first question posed to Michael Dukakis in 1988. And of course because he was polite and didn't immediately lay into the reporter ("Yeah, let's just start the evening off on a positive note, why don't we? Hello? What the fuck kind of stupid question is that? Yeah, I think I just might be a little upset if my wife were raped and murdered. Like this has anything to do with my not wanting to see the wrong guy get executed for it, so that at the end of the day we have two innocent people dead"), this was taken as a sign of "weakness" and the media had a field day.
culminating, of course, in
- That first 2000 debate, where, by any reasonable debating standard, Gore completely wiped the floor with Bush, quoting numbers from Bush's own website back at him to point out just how full of shit he was. And so of course the media is all about how Bush was all natural&folksyTM and didn't completely fall on his face, while Gore was an asshole because he was sighing at Bush's purposeful obtuseness.
Really, they're not debates; they're just extended co-campaign speeches/photo-ops, paid for by you and me. And the media just spins them however the hell they want, usually to prop up whoever is behind so that they can play the horse race for all it's worth (though I think in 2000 they just hated Gore and that was that...)
So I don't know how I'm going to feel if the 2004 debates actually end up being judged as debates (for once) and end up putting Kerry over the top.