The One Thing This Debate Has In Common With The Republican Primary Debate 35 Years Ago (Hint: It's A Family Affair)
The second Republican presidential debate takes place Wednesday, and it promises all of the drama and excitement of the first showdown between the top GOP candidates. But just how recent is our obsession with primary presidential debates? The first Republican primary debate was televised in 1980, and now, 35 years later, there's still one thing this debate has in common with the one from way back when: in both, a member of the Bush family was center stage.
CNN will host the event Wednesday, and just like before, the 10 candidates will the highest polling numbers will be allowed to participate. Whether you're cheering on your favorite candidate or waiting for the latest embarrassing gaffe, few of us can resist watching the cast of characters vying for the GOP nomination. Still, given all the excitement surrounding the Republican presidential debates, it's easy to forget that staging the kind of dialogue between the candidates that we're used to seeing is a pretty recent phenomenon.
Just weeks ago, more than 24 million people watched the first GOP debates of the 2016 presidential campaign, making it the most popular debate in television history. The interaction between political candidates that we see play out every day (thanks to television and social media) was unimaginable in the earliest eras of American politics.
The earliest presidential candidates didn't actually campaign for office; it was considered poor form. Debates were out of the question. (In fact, a 1948 radio debate between Republican presidential candidates is considered by some historians as the earliest example of the the modern debate model.) Then, television happened and, well, you can probably imagine the rest of the story: The famous 1960 face-off between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the nation's first televised presidential forum.
Twenty years later, The Nashua Telegraph in New Hampshire offered to host a debate between Republican front-runner Ronald Reagan and Republican National Committee chair George H.W. Bush. In the end, the Reagan campaign footed the bill for the event to get around the regulations on election financing. Rather than keep the debate just between the two candidates, as Bush hoped, Reagan invited the other primary candidates to participate at the last minute. The moderator threatened to cut off Reagan's microphone, rather than allow the candidate to change the format. Reagan replied with a jab that quickly became famous: "I'm paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!"
Of course, Ronald Reagan went on to dominate the primary and the general election — and George H.W. Bush became his running mate.
Just like the 1980 GOP debates, this week's square-off between GOP candidates promises theatrics, drama, and a member of the Bush family. There's a good chance someone will ignore the ground rules. And there will surely be plenty of zingers thrown across the stage. And, because the Republican debates have basically replaced reality television for many of us, it's safe to say that we'll all be watching to the bitter end.
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