Sometimes it seemed they would never end, and at times as if their prime contribution was to provide laugh lines for late-night comedians. But the string of Republican debates leading to January's caucuses and elections has already set a record for television viewership (7.63 million for the Dec. 10 ABC debate) and helped winnow the huge field of wannabe nominees. The debates have elevated Newt Gingrich from hapless trailer to frontrunner, revealed Rick Perry's ignorance and Herman Cain's shallow grasp of issues, and raised the prospect of an independent run for Ron Paul. And despite complaints that low-polling candidates weren't showcased, a Washington Post study showed they actually got more air time than they deserved. Increasingly, however, pundits have come to consider the debates only a secondary factor after the overwhelming influence of Fox News, which has become an unofficial Republican cable outlet.
One conservative pundit, George Will, had enough of the clown show. “Because the very idea of an eight-sided debate is absurd," he wrote, "and because such a televised event is survival of the briefest, the format discourages the drawing of sensible distinctions." Instead, Will called for a “debate of substance” on just two topics, Iraq and the Supreme Court.
Actually, there was once just such a Republican primary debate, and it may have turned the tides of fortune for the participants. New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey and former Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen faced off on May 17, 1948 in Portland, Oregon, in the first and only radio debate between primary contenders. Broadcast nationally, it drew somewhere between 40 million and 80 million listeners.
Radio was the hot news medium of the day. During World War II the broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow and other foreign correspondents drew big audiences across the nation, and for a few years afterward radio remained the most powerful news force in America. And Oregon’s direct presidential primary, a keystone of its progressive tradition, was one of the few such contest in the country; in most states national convention delegates were chosen at meetings of party activists.
Stassen, the “boy governor of Minnesota,” would become a laughingstock in later years by refusing to give up his presidential ambitions. But in 1948 he was one of the nation's most popular politicians in the country, a successful governor in the progressive mold and clearly a man with a political future.
Dewey, serving his second term as New York governor, had built a reputation as a crime-busting prosecutor and run in 1944 against President Roosevelt. But he was on the ropes in his second bid for the GOP nomination; Stassen had won primaries in Wisconsin and Nebraska and was looking and feeling confident. Dewey needed to stop a growing Stassen wave.
“Stassen is coolly self-confident, lacking any apparent awareness of an audience and calmly deliberate in decision and action,” columnist Joseph Alsop wrote on the eve of the Oregon vote. “Dewey, on the other hand, is always aware of his audience. He plainly calculates his efforts. He makes a show of his briskness and decisiveness, which, although real, seem also intended to impress. Stassen, one suspects, has always ruled those around him without effort. Dewey has always had to assert himself in order to dominate his environment. It is this visible effort to be master that causes so many people to be put off by Dewey.”
The governor of New York was a small, trim man with a brush mustache; his critics likened him to “the little man on the wedding cake.” The governor of Minnesota was large and gregarious, and held liberal views on foreign policy and most domestic issues. Both were to the left of the Grand Old Party grandees, who favored Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio.
Stassen had campaigned in Oregon in March and gained considerable press coverage, most of it favorable. But he was forced to return to Oregon when Dewey announced he would spend an unprecedented three weeks in the state, with only 12 delegates at stake but a national media spotlight aimed squarely at the two governors. Taft and other hopefuls were not competing in Oregon.
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