Thursday, August 06, 2015

Poker and the Debates

I’ve been pretty immersed in presidential campaigns this summer. I’m not talking about the ones for 2016. Rather, the ones from 1960, 1968, and 1972.

That’s because I’m continuing to prepare for a class I’ll be teaching in the fall, kind of an offshoot from the “Poker in American Film and Culture” one that I taught (and have written about here) for about four years or so in the American Studies program at UNC-Charlotte. Gonna take a break from that for a bit to try a different course this fall, one called “Tricky Dick: Richard Nixon, Poker, and Politics.”

The main focus of the new course is obviously Nixon and his three-decade long odyssey of a political career, with much discussion along the way of the Cold War, Vietnam, and Watergate (natch). We’ll use Nixon’s poker-playing background as a starting point for the class, subsequently linking many of the strategies he employed in the context of campaigns, domestic policy, and international diplomacy (and war) with what he had to say about poker.

I’ll share more about the class later on. Today, though, I am thinking about how even though we’re 15 months or so away from the 2016 presidential election, the “race” (as it were) has already begun in earnest, it seems, with the Republicans having the first of what I assume will probably be two dozen or more debates before the G.O.P. finally decides on a candidate.

In fact, there are two debates today -- a kind of “undercard” one involving seven candidates this afternoon, then the prime time one tonight with 10 more. Seems crazily early for it, but four years ago the G.O.P. started up with the debates even earlier, the first one having happened in May 2011 (pictured above).

The 1960 election turned heavily on the debates between Nixon and John F. Kennedy, of course, with the first of the four having the greatest impact and Nixon’s “five o’clock shadow” becoming an iconic image much referenced thereafter. There’s a lot more to the story of the JFK-RMN heads-up battle that year, although I will say I am greatly looking forward to having students watch that first debate and discussing with them some of the moves both players make in it.

Some may not realize there were no debates again until 1976, at least among the presidential candidates. Lyndon B. Johnson was such a prohibitive favorite in 1964, he easily saw how debating Barry Goldwater would be of little value to him -- only a way to lose “chips.” For similar reasons, Nixon opted not to debate George McGovern in 1972, although he’d say he was too busy visiting China and Moscow and running the country to stoop to campaigning (or scrutinizing the criminal activities of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President that would eventually contribute to his downfall).

In 1968 the race was much tighter, and while Hubert Humphrey did challenge Nixon to a debate, the latter opted against doing so, in part because of what had happened in 1960. There was one debate between Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy on June 1 that year, three days before the California primary. RFK won California, and during his victory speech challenged McCarthy to another debate just moments before sadly being gunned down by an assassin and dying early on June 6.

Looking back on those earlier campaigns, while there was certainly maneuvering happening 15 months out, announcements of candidacies and the engagement of campaigns were all still a good ways off -- never mind anyone actually talking about or having debates.

It’s nonetheless curious to consider the scene at present, including the current position of Donald Trump, the celebrity candidate whose current frontrunner status in G.O.P. polls can only be negatively affected by any direct engagement with his opponents, including in the context of a debate. There’s a kind of funny article on Five Thirty Eight this week ticking off “potential threats to Trump” which is, in fact, merely a list of the necessary stages of the campaign between now and the Republican National Convention in July 2016.

In other words, it seems more or less clear this is a game Trump can’t possibly win. Even so, it’s also clear he will probably continue playing it for as long as he’s able to keep rebuying.

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