This is especially notable for being the first mass audience debate between prospective presidential candidates in US history. While it’s true that Kennedy v Nixon was the first between general election candidates, and Kefauver v Stevenson is the first televised debate (between primary opponents) this contest between eventual Republican nominee Thomas Dewey, and his opponent Harold Stassen, predates them both. This was broadcasted over the radio, and involved Dewey and his rival in the Republican Party primary, Stassen, debating a national response to Communism.
The more I see of Dewey the more I like him. His historical reputation led me to believe he was just supposed to be a pompous empty suit spewing lame platitudes. But he’s much more than that, upon further review. He’s an incredibly smooth public speaker, and he makes some great points in this debate. His argument is that we shouldn’t ban Communists from public life–we should out-compete Communism so it doesn’t attract people in the first place. This is such a great position for many reasons, it’s pro-free expression and if followed, would have avoided the Red Scare as well as McCarthyism which marked the beginning of the destruction of the political left in America. That overreaction to Communism is one of the worst things that ever happened to America, in my opinion, and is one of the reasons we are such an unbalanced far-right country compared to the more balanced political spectrums of other developed countries.
I’m starting to think Dewey deserves a place alongside McGovern, Willkie, Cox and Stevenson as one of the great “what if” candidates in history. I think we’d have been better off if he were President from 1948 to ’52 or even ’56. He probably would have shut McCarthy down faster than Eisenhower did. And we might have gotten a President Stevenson or JFK in ’56 then too. Without the Kennedy assassination and escalation of the Vietnam war, who knows what could have happened from there. Without Nixon as VP leading into two Presidential campaigns and no Watergate, maybe people would still be optimistic of government and more likely to get involved. A girl can dream, anyway.
The most famous line of this debate, “you can’t shoot an idea with a gun” would not sound out of place today discussing overreactions to Terrorism, and it shows Dewey was reasonable and far ahead of his time.
Aside from all that, notice the format. It’s similar to the Lincoln-Douglas debates. 20 minutes each to lay out their positions completely, then back to back rebuttals of the other’s points, running 8 and a half minutes each. The Lincoln-Douglas debates had one guy speak for 60 minutes, then the challenger had 90 minutes for a rebuttal, and finally the first guy had a 30 minute response. We ought to go back to this kind of format. It allows the candidates to comprehensively lay out their plans, rather than cram it into catchy soundbites to fit the ridiculous 30-90 second time limits in modern debates. At the very least, we should have at least one debate in each format.