Debate Prep: Bill Clinton v. Robert Dole (1996)

Baxter Yarbrough is from Morrilton, Arkansas and a sophomore at the University of Arkansas. He is double majoring in political science and psychology with a minor in marketing. Yarbrough is involved in the University of Arkansas’s chapters of Beta Theta Pi, Young Democrats, Pi Sigma Alpha, Rotaract, United Campus Ministries, CRU and the Student Alumni Association. After graduation, Yarbrough hopes to attend graduate school and concurrently receive a Juris Doctorate from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law and a Master of Public Service from the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service as part of the two schools’ JD/MPS program.

To put it simply, the first presidential debate of the 1996 election year was a thrill.  President Bill Clinton and Senator Robert “Bob” Dole went answer for answer, staying neck and neck through the final question and closing statements. Whether it was the debate on how to handle the drug crisis facing American youth, talks about foreign policy under President Clinton’s first term, each candidate’s view on what the role of the federal government should be, Senator Dole’s tax plan for the next four years, or any other topic of conversation, both men handled each question, answer, rebuttal, and response professionally and intelligently. With a strong and well-followed platform for the debate, the American people were able to clearly hear each candidate propose their plan for the next four years.

The platform for the debate was fairly straightforward: the debate would last ninety minutes and would include two-minute opening and closing statements from each candidate, with questions in between. Each question would consist of three parts: a ninety-second answer, a sixty-second rebuttal, and a thirty-second response. To assist the candidates, Jim Lehrer facilitated the debate, making sure that all rules were followed and the candidates were aware of the amount of the allotted time they have used up in their answers, rebuttals, and responses. The candidates could not ask questions to each other.  Finally, the order of events was determined by a coin toss.

Also, there were no limitations on the subjects of the questions being asked. The topics of choice varied widely, but certain policies prevailed over others. In particular, economic policy over Medicare, tax reform, foreign policy with regards to Bosnia, Russia/The Cold War, the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban, and drug reform stood out over others.  Though Senator Dole did avoid a question regarding campaign finance and attempted to switch topics to the drug culture in United States, the two candidates stayed on topic for the entirety of the debate, which is something we hardly see any more with the debates.

Though there are other differences in today’s debates compared to those from twenty years ago, nothing is more prevalent than how Senator Dole and President Clinton treated each other during the debate. Despite disagreeing on most subjects, each candidate acknowledged not just a tolerance for each other, but a respect and liking of the other. Of course, that could be attributed to similarities in each one’s personality; however, it is at the very least uncommon to see a Republican and a Democrat openly get along, especially when the two are competing against each other for a position in office. There are other differences, such as the use of only one camera then compared to the multitude of angles we have now, the use of podiums in 1996 on the general debate stage, and the overall political views of the two candidates. This can be attributed to each party’s shift over time, but today we see the Republican candidate attempt to come off as pretty conservative and the Democratic candidate appear fairly liberal. Instead, the candidates went after the centrist voters.

Ultimately, the debate was very close, but I believe that President Clinton emerged as the victor due to his charisma, preparedness, and ease with which he responded to each question. Senator Dole did have great reactions from the audience, but he did not seem to be as comfortable as the president. I believe that the debate helped sway undecided voters toward Clinton, but I do not believe that it determined the outcome of the election.

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