Perspectives on the Presidential Debates

Allen Mikaelian, November 2012

Throughout the month of October 2012, Perspectives Online featured a series of "AHA Roundtables" on the presidential and vice-presidential debates. Comprised of short responses by noted colleagues, each roundtable was designed to highlight how historians can contribute to dialog about current topics. "As a community of historians," AHA Executive Director James Grossman wrote in his introduction to the first roundtable, "the AHA believes that public discourse on any topic benefits from historical context and historical thinking."

Participants in the AHA roundtable on the October 3 debate had mixed reactions about Gwen Ifill's observation that the candidates "spent an awful lot of time talking about the past." Some historians on the panel felt the candidates blithely ignored even recent history, while others argued that the candidates used and misused history without even acknowledging it. Other comments reflected the near universal disappointment over the overall quality of the discourse. "Both candidates should feel ashamed," wrote Patrick Allitt, "If they ever read the Lincoln-Douglas debates they'll be mortified at the contrast." Also missing from the debate, noted Khalil Gibran Muhammad, was reference to race: "One of the most striking aspects of the first 2012 presidential debate is how little President Obama's racial identity mattered." Amanda Seligman guided readers through a brief history of health care policy in order to reveal another aspect of the debate that was not openly discussed: "The first presidential debate revealed that a funny thing happened on the way to the welfare state. Health care was disentangled from poverty policy."

These and other insights brought to the table the long view, which was exactly the intention. "We leave the punditry to the pundits; the partisanship to the politicians. Our role is to offer the benefit of historical thinking and historical context," Grossman noted.

The vice-presidential debate garnered responses from experts on foreign and domestic policy. Emily Rosenberg wrote about the persistence of the themes of resolve and strength, now refracted through Congressman Paul Ryan, and of how inadequate they are in the formation of real, effective policy. H.W. Brands reflected on how "Vice presidential debates are a throwback to the nineteenth century. In those days presidential candidates considered it demeaning to ask voters for their support…. So they relied on proxies." John R. McNeill noted how "Both candidates, but Biden especially, engaged in a fetishistic worship of an undefined 'middle class.' The vocabulary of American politics once included other classes, notably a working class, which seems now to be an archaic term relegated to the dustbin of history." And Gregory L. Schneider found parallels to discourses surrounding the Vietnam War and the election of 1964.

The print version of this issue went to press before the remaining two Presidential debates aired; please see the two AHA Roundtables on the October 16, 2012 Presidential Debate, and the October 22, 2012 Presidential Debate.

The roundtables offer historians a platform for quick commentary directed a general audience on topics where a historical perspective is needed. We welcome proposals for further roundtables; these may be sent to the editor of Perspectives on History.

Using History to Teach the Debates

For her class, "The History of the Present," Alice O'Connor (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara), assigned her students a series of tasks that involved watching and responding to the presidential debates. The first asked them to identify how history was used (or misused) in the debate. The second involved the task of watching the debate, reading the AHA Roundtable, and writing short response papers. "Clearly," her prompt asked, "historians have more than one thing to say about a given event in the present; how does this help you to think about its broader historical significance?"

O'Connor was struck by what historical references students picked out of the first presidential debate: "They picked up on Obama's invocation of Lincoln (and not FDR) and Bill Clinton, recognizing the reference to Lincoln as the ultimate "safe" association." In addition, the collaboration between President Reagan and Tip O'Neill resonated, "though I think the vast majority of my students have no idea who Tip O'Neill was," she noted, and students also grasped "the use of the Great Depression as a reference point for our current economic times."

Reflecting the ambiguity over when history begins, the class discussion took a turn when one student asserted that the candidates talked about "history" frequently—when they were talking about Bill Clinton. O'Connor also discovered, during this turn in the class conversation, that "They see Bill Clinton as within the pantheon of incontrovertible presidents—founding fathers, Lincoln, Reagan, Clinton. How quickly things change."

Allen Mikaelian is the associate editor of Perspectives on History.