Don’t call these television performances debates

In August of 2015, 15 months before the presidential election, the Republican Party invited 17 of its best and brightest candidates for president to take part in what would be the first of a dozen “debates.”  They would continue until the following March and give us Donald Trump.

Having learned nothing from that debacle and intent upon destroying more of our summer than the Republicans managed, the Democratic Party has announced it will start its marathon earlier—17 months before the 2020 presidential election with a “debate” accommodating up to 20 of its shinier stars on two consecutive nights in June—this June.  

You may recall the Republicans had separate debates in the early going, one for the poll leaders and the second for the also-rans. The first tier had Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Ron Paul, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio and John Kasich. The second exhibited the talents of Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, Carly Fiorina, George Pataki and Jim Gilmore.  Some of them are still around.

The Democrats intend to make their first two debates separate but equal with each candidate’s slot on the first or second night’s production selected in a random drawing.  This eliminates the kiddie table the Republicans had and gives the less-likelies a chance to perform with the big boys and girls. 

It’s not hard to qualify. A candidate must either get 1 percent in three party-approved polls or raise at least $65,000 from 200 donors in 20 different states, according to The New York Times.  

This will give “all types of candidates the opportunity to reach the debate stage,” said party chairman Tom Perez. It certainly will but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. The Democrats hope the field will be greatly reduced by the third debate and only serious candidates will survive. Maybe, maybe not.

Four years ago, the Republicans showed us how the crowded, preliminary shows enabled the loudest, most outlandish performer to stand out and he never looked back. We don’t yet know who the loudest, most outlandish performer will be in the Democrats’ June shows, but be worried.

Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the first televised presidential debate between Democrat John Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon. Party debates with more than two candidates taking part would come later—1972 for the Democrats and 1980 for the Republicans. Both were in New Hampshire and both are remembered for strange moments that provided a harbinger of what was to come at these gatherings.

The first official Democratic debate had the five candidates who had gotten on the New Hampshire ballot: front runner Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine and his challengers, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, Sen. Vance Hartke of Indiana, Mayor Sam Yorty of Los Angeles and a community activitist from Hartford named Ned Coll. Coll, best known for marching black children from Hartford across the shoreline’s private beaches, brought a prop to the debate to dramatize his issue, urban poverty. The prop was a real-looking rubber rat that he dangled by its tail as he answered the moderator’s questions. With that, Coll and the rat retired from the race.

Eight years on in 1980, the Republicans got into the primary debate business in a similarly colorful manner, with a microphone replacing the rubber rat in the prop department. It began with the Nashua Telegraph offering to host a debate between the front-runners, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, but without the single digit performers, John Anderson, Howard Baker, Bob Dole and Phil Crane.

Reagan and Bush agreed, but Reagan had second thoughts and told the newspaper he would pay for the debate with his campaign funds and invite the other candidates. But he didn’t tell Bush until just before debate time and Bush refused to take part on live TV. When Reagan tried to explain his decision to invite the also-rans, the newspaper’s editor, Jon Breen, tried to cut his mike.

“I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green (sic),” an angry Reagan shouted, uttering the only words in the debate that would be remembered. The other candidates agreed to leave, which would be unimaginable today, and Reagan and Bush had a two-man debate. Reagan won New Hampshire in a landslide.

And one more fact to ponder about the Kennedy-Nixon debate that started it all. Kennedy didn’t announce his candidacy until Jan. 2, 1960, the second day of the election year. Nixon announced a week later.


Simsbury, Conn., resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.