One-on-ones have changed the course of history several times
By William S. Bike
The Republican National Committee’s decision to prohibit the GOP’s presidential nominee from participating in debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates is a break from tradition — but only recent tradition.
Many Americans think that the first presidential debates were the ones between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, but those debates were for the 1858 Illinois Senate race, not the 1860 Presidential election. The first presidential debate did not happen until the 1948 Republican presidential primary, when Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen had a radio debate. The first true presidential debates between Democratic and Republican candidates were in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
With JFK giving Nixon a drubbing in the 1960 debates and likely winning the presidency because of them, the Republicans did not consider debating the Democratic candidates in 1964, 1968, and 1972. The Republican 1964 nominee, Barry Goldwater, actually was looking forward to debating JFK if Kennedy had been the 1964 Democratic candidate (the two even discussed travelling to debates together on the same airplane), but Goldwater did not want to debate the more sharp-tongued Lyndon Johnson. Nixon was the Republican candidate in 1968 and 1972, and he did not want a repeat of 1960. On their own, however, during the 1968 primaries, two candidates, Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Bobby Kennedy, had a terrific radio debate.
So the modern debates really began in 1976 between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and since then they have become such a part of the fabric of the Presidential campaigns that the public expects them.
Presidential debates have turned the tide several times. Nixon was the favorite until Kennedy beat him in the 1960 debates. Ford was coming on strong in 1976 until in one of the debates he said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” costing him millions of votes from Americans who had been in the midst of the Cold War for 30 years and knew better. Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were tied in the polls before their 1980 debate. After Carter…