From The Presidential Debate of October 3, 2012 AHA Roundtable, a Perspectives Online extra from the October 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

Near Oblivion about History

Patrick Allitt, October 2012

Patrick AllittIt’s hard to imagine how a presidential debate could be worse than this. Feeble Jim Lehrer was hopeless at controlling the candidates, while they seemed powerless to prevent themselves from boring and annoying the audience. Dreary citation of statistics and dollar figures, icy denials behind frozen smiles, and petty point scoring made the two of them shrink in stature and significance over the long ninety minutes. The only thing they didn’t do was descend to personal mudslinging.

Most disappointing was their near oblivion about history. This constitutional republic has endured for 225 years, adapting to immense changes in its geography, economy, population, technology, and geopolitical role while achieving a political stability, a freedom of expression, an inclusiveness, and a prosperity, that are the envy of the world. Neither man thought these achievements worth even a mention, perhaps because neither could use them to denigrate the other. 

In about the seventieth minute President Obama unexpectedly listed a few of President Lincoln’s initiatives—funding of the land-grant colleges, support for the transcontinental railroad, and creation of the National Academy of Sciences.  These actions, he declared, were examples of the federal government enhancing rather than restricting freedom.  Confronted with an historical reference, Governor Romney responded with a remark or two about the Constitution, but only in the vaguest and most tenuous way.  Its statement about the Creator he took as support for religious freedom, though a reference to the First Amendment would have been more apt. The only people he mentioned by name in the whole debate were his contemporaries: Tommy Thompson, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Arne Duncan; the only other individual he referred to was “Bill Clinton’s chief of staff.”  He spoke the name of no Republican president, not Lincoln, not Reagan, and certainly not George W. Bush.

Apart from this brief digression, the candidates blustered about opaque policy squabbles. Asked right at the start about job creation, the president rambled off with some irrelevant remarks about education and health care statistics. He had obviously decided beforehand what to say, no matter what questions were asked. Romney contradicted him on every point with rival statistics, also predigested.  His rhetoric was smoother; his substance hollower.

Romney is, of course, in a tough spot. Having been a pragmatic governor of Massachusetts with a talent for compromise, he had to disavow his record to get the Republican nomination. Now, by contrast, he’s got to fumble his way back toward the middle of the national political spectrum in order to reassure undecided voters that he’s really no zealot. If he succeeds in showing he’s no zealot, however, he affirms that he’s a hypocrite.

Obama is in a tough spot too. What a disillusionment the last four years have been for anyone who had faith in him during the 2008 campaign. The idealism was bound to be deflated by the realities of office, but it could have been replaced with a mood of seasoned wisdom. Instead, he just seems diminished, hoping to hang on to his place but no longer offering a galvanizing glimpse of the future.  Anyone who saw Obama for the first time last night would find it hard to believe that this man had once been an inspiring figure, the living embodiment of hope.

Both candidates should feel ashamed.  If they ever read the Lincoln-Douglas debates they’ll be mortified at the contrast. On the other hand, both doubtless realize that these 2012 debates are exercises in pure wishful thinking. They are premised on the idea that a new president can decide what to do on entering the White House. The reality is quite otherwise. Presidents spend most of their time in office responding to events, not initiating them. America’s recent political history shows all too clearly that innovative plans are the least likely to be accomplished, and that the immediate future is one not of sweeping transformation but of irritability and deadlock.

Patrick Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University.