As with many aspects of modern politics, most people probably assume that the townhall debate is a tradition dating back many decades, at the very least. In a sense, that is correct: the townhall has a long and storied history as a governing institution in New England that represented its Colonial and Revolutionary-Era preference for local institutions (a preference which persists into the present day). As a presidential debate format, however, the townhall method is only two decades old. That would put the first such debate in 1992, between then-President George H.W. Bush and the challenger, former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Bush was quite popular for much of his presidency, but he was always higher on competence than charisma. And despite what we here think of Clinton, his political salesmanship was and remains a feat in and of itself. Clinton had a natural way of relating himself to the audience--more than just about any other politician now living, he knows how to "feel our pain":
Eight years later, Clinton's Vice President, Al Gore, showed us the other side of the empathy spectrum. In a townhall debate with George W. Bush, Gore walked over to Bush as he was answering an audience member's question and stood beside him, as if to menace or threaten:
Gore may have succeeded in appearing to be the alpha-male had Bush not so casually brushed him aside with that well-placed nod. Thus, in just a few key physical movements, Bush managed to brush off Gore unthinkingly while also making him seem like a robot. George H.W. Bush may have suffered somewhat from his debate performance, though other variables - a not-great economy, the Perot candidacy - certainly applied in 1992; this little exchange could be one of the many things that keeps Al Gore awake at night these days ("If only I had appeared MORE HUMAN during the townhall debate!").
Fast-forwarding another eight years brings us to 2008, another election without any actual incumbents (the Obama campaign's success in painting Sen. John McCain as Bush's third term notwithstanding). Most of the debates were uneventful; conservatives were hoping against hope for some incredible campaign-saving McCain zinger or some campaign-destroying blunder from then-Sen. Obama. In the end, the debates did pretty much nothing to alter the trajectory of a race that was already Obama's for the winning. The moment I remember most from that year's townhall is probably one of the strangest:
Some liberals believed at the time that McCain subconsciously or consciously demeaned Obama when he referred to him as "that one." That is unlikely; debates can fluster, as President Obama learned recently. Still, it was just...odd, and certainly reinforced my then-politically uninformed perceptions about how bad a candidate McCain was; perhaps it had the same effect on some independent voters that year (though Obama hardly needed any help capturing them in 2008).
So, if the short but storied history of the modern townhall debate is a reliable indicator, then tomorrow's debate at Hofstra University is sure to provide its own moments of import worthy of current and future political, historical, and perhaps even cultural discussion. But what does the format itself say about the country? Let us return to the 1992 townhall debate for our answer (via Instapundit):
Yes, that's right: he just called citizens of a free nation "children" of the president. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when two nuclear superpowers sat on the edge of oblivion, was this idea anywhere near the mainstream? Jim Geraghty of National Review thinks not:
Look at the men nominated by the parties between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the end of the Cold War: Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, George H. W. Bush.
Some of these men had potent political charisma, but most didn’t. Most were older, most had been in national politics for a while and were perceived as well-established leaders, and most had served during World War Two in one form or another...1992 was really the transitional year for the modern presidency: you had George H.W. Bush, former CIA Director, Ronald Reagan's VP, a World War II hero--the consummate Cold War president, going against Bill Clinton, a popular charmer who felt your pain and played the saxophone. Let us not dispute that we're better off not hanging under a cloud of nuclear uncertainty, but are we also better off stuck with the celebrity/pain-feeling president template that Clinton perfected and has passed down in one way or another to every president after him? Will that template ever allow this country solve its serious problems? Will that template ever restore a proper balance between citizen and state? Ultimately, will that template ever have our politicians treat us like adults instead of children? These are important questions, particularly the latter--a nation of children is unlikely either to be willing or able to help fix our nation's many problems.
The two biggest differences between the world I grew up in — from the late 70s to the early 90s — and today are the disappearance of the Cold War and the emergence of the Internet. You don’t realize the intensity of the Cold War’s impact on our political culture until you marvel at how quickly dynamics and expectations changed after it ended. In America after 1962, every time you went into the polling place for a president, you were looking for a man (yes, only men in those years, other than Geraldine Ferraro being a heartbeat away from the presidency) who you would trust to be in the Oval Office when the tense call from the Pentagon came in: “Mr. President, we’ve detected sudden movement in the Warsaw Pact forces and the Soviets have bombers in the air.” The decisions the president made in those moments could literally mean the difference between life and death for millions of Americans...
The Berlin Wall comes down in 1989, and within three years, Bill Clinton is wearing shades and playing his saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” Think about it, this wasn’t even a network late-night talk show; this was syndicated. The notion of any of the Cold War-era candidates attempting to pitch themselves in this manner is pretty unthinkable.
But within a decade, our political culture had gone cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, with a slew of wacky personas, perhaps better suited for popular culture than governing, running major bids, or winning high office, like the two major bids for H. Ross Perot, or Jesse Ventura’s winning bid as governor of Minnesota. Guys like John Edwards started getting elected to the Senate; folks who had never been elected statewide, like former ambassador Alan Keyes, and former Education Undersecretary Gary Bauer, or folks who had never run for anything before, like publisher Steve Forbes and former White House speechwriter Pat Buchanan, started running for president, and being treated as at least somewhat serious candidates. Whatever you think of these particular figures, we can agree they would be unelectable to a position of major national responsibility during a tense time period like the Cold War...