A Historian’s Take On the (Protracted) 2012 Presidential Debates

Edward O. Frantz is associate professor of history at the University of Indianapolis and the author of  The Door of Hope: Republican Presidents and the First Southern Strategy, 1877-1933.

Throughout the entire presidential campaign of 2012, frank policy discussions have been strikingly absent. Exploring our political past demonstrates that this need not have been the case. There have been times when candidates have been much more willing to conduct serious discussions with the electorate.

At rare points in American history, parties and candidates have aligned themselves neatly in opposition of one another.  They did so most famously in 1896, when two Williams who hailed from the Midwest (McKinley and Jennings Bryan) engaged in a lengthy debate regarding currency.  During this “Battle of the Standards,” American voters got an education about monetary policy as it affected American life.  To be sure, the parties distorted facts, but they also spent a good deal of time and effort trying to educate the public about why finance really mattered, both to national policy and to matters of daily life.

One hundred years ago, in 1912, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt engaged in a protracted debate (with William Howard Taft and Eugene Debs occupying the right and left flanks, respectively) about the proper role of government in American life.  They essentially argued over whose brand of progressivism was best attuned to American ideals and toward solving the trenchant problems in American society.

Wilson and Roosevelt did not engage each other in direct debates.  However, throughout the fall of 1912, their public appearances traced the same paths, which meant that communities got to measure the two candidates against each other.  Both had passionate followings, and the intensity of the issues was perhaps made most clear when Roosevelt famously uttered: “We Stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!”

In the 1912 election, the Republican Party, which had its foundation in the opposition to the spread of slavery, found itself in an awkward position.  It had to separate itself from both its more distant and more immediate past.  At times Taft argued about the Republican commitment to African Americans, although his administration’s record belied many of those claims.

Although Republicans had played a key role in advancing the progressive cause under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, in 1912 the party machinery was behind the stolid candidacy of William Howard Taft. Taft, a sitting president, found himself defending the status quo and the rights of big business.  It was not a popular move, as evidenced by the  eight electoral votes he garnered  in what proved to be one of the worst showings by a sitting president in American history.

A century later, Republican Mitt Romney finds himself trying to free his party from the ghosts of historical past. He rejects the preemptive foreign policy that characterized the George W. Bush administration, while trying to recycle a version of compassionate conservatism associated with Bush, the polarizing 43rd president.   Like Taft, Romney made a half-hearted gesture toward African Americans.  (Here political observers will recall a July speech to the NAACP that went over like a lead balloon.)

Although Romney may have had some things in common with Taft, the 2012 presidential campaign has unfortunately not otherwise resembled that of 1912. Voters have endured, rather than been engaged with, this incredibly long campaign.  Throughout we have been reminded that the choices we face are stark, the differences between the two candidates real.  This is undeniably the case. Mitt Romney and Democrat Barack Obama are the products of different eras, different cultural influences, and different geographic regions.

This election should have been a time for two brainy, elitist technocrats to engage in a protracted debate about the proper role of government.  It should have been a time to engage in a serious discussion about the nature of American foreign policy in a rapidly changing world.  And it should have been an election where the race to collect new votes generated bold new proposals that will help Americans adapt to the challenges of the 21st century.

That they did not is attributable to a number of factors, logistical, technological, and strategic.  It also demonstrates that neither candidate was willing to let the American people evaluate political ideas on their own merit.

Can we lay blame on the parties and the candidates themselves?  Perhaps, but the omissions in this campaign also speak to American citizens’ alarmingly short attention span, and the inability to cherish the most fundamental rights guaranteed to us by a democratic government.

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