If you go all the way back to 1960 and listen to the debate between Vice President Nixon and Senator Kennedy, it's pretty obvious that the art of politeness was still in fashion even though the two candidates were obviously seething. Questions in the 1960 debates were constantly being raised about Kennedy's supposed lack of experience despite the fact that both he and Nixon had both entered the Congress in 1948. Questions were also asked about Nixon and his virtual disendorsement by President Eisenhower. That is more easily explained by Eisenhower's lack of care for politics, having become President almost against his wishes, after having previously been a military commander.
If you want to start someone who really knew how to play the game of television debates, then the 1980 debates between Carter and Reagan are things of beauty. Jimmy Carter was about as popular as a cat poo on the kitchen floor and basically all Reagan had to do to win, was show up. Ronald Reagan though was an actor, and as someone who had spoken as a staunch conservative in the disastrous Goldwater campaign of 1964, he also had a long and well defined history from which to sell his platform. Carter looked like a rabbit who had been caught in a car's headlights and Reagan was supremely confident. These debates were practically walkovers for Reagan.
Fast forward to 1984 and the debates between Reagan and Dukakis are also interesting to follow. Again, President Reagan had four years of experience in the Oval Office chair and Walter Mondale looked like a schoolboy who had turned up to class without his homework. Although he spoke perfect sense about Reagan's policies on taxation being woefully inadequate to improve net revenue, Mondale really needn't have bothered.
Four years later when Reagan's veep George HW Bush stood for President, it was almost as if Michael Dukakis doubled down on sheer incompetence and Bush looked quite seasoned, having already been in two Vice Presidential debates of his own.
In 2012, Mitt Romney and Obama talked past each other and it was obvious that both of them saw the debate as a necessary step on the road to the White House. Legend has it that Romney had held sixteen practice debates on mock stages, where attention was paid to even small details like the position of camera angles and when to wipe the sweat from one's brow. It kind of helped both candidates that they had a slower than normal delivery rate for the number of words that they spoke, and this is something which they probably both trained for.
Obama should have been a president who made sweeping reforms but he had been obstructed by a Congress which was even less productive than Truman's "Do Nothing" Congress. Romney could have capitalised on this (even though he was part of that obstructive Congress) but he never cashed in on any of the moral tokens that he collected. Instead, Romney kept on dragging discussions into areas of taxation and this cost him the debates.
In 2008, and just weeks after the implosion of financial markets, Obama was able to trade on hope and optimism and his opposite number John McCain was just unfortunate in his timing in the great wheels of history. Although having said that, McCain's running mate Sarah Palin brought the first wave of Republican wingnuttery to the debate stage and it can very easily be argued that what we're now seeing with Donald Trump is just the long game of eight years writ large.
The most obvious problem with trying to make any sort of analysis of either the 2016 election campaign or the debates is that Donald Trump is a populist candidate who is devoid of any notion of playing by the established rules of conduct or common sense. Hillary Clinton is very much an established career politician who is mostly a technocrat. She's been on the inside of the political machine and knows how it operates. Trump is an anti establishment showman who has played the game of politics brilliantly. He's still as mad as a cut snake in a bucket of salt but if you're riding the wave of populism, then the ends seemingly justify all means; no matter how insane the speech that goes along with it sounds.
The one thing to remember is that if you say something often enough, it doesn't matter if it's true or not, people will absorb it. That's primarily how advertising works and how I know that a Mars a day helps you work, rest and play. It also doesn't matter if there is decent fact checking going on either because the people who mostly care about fact checking in politics are political junkies anyway and the people who don't care about fact checking, tend not to have their minds changed when presented with the facts anyway. It doesn't matter if 85% of what Donald Trump is saying is wrong or that Hillary Clinton as Secretary of Defence actually was dealing with rebels and nefarious people in Libya, of that she has destroyed the paper trail behind her.
Instead what the people of America have to choose from as their commander in chief, is the choice between two different kinds of badness. My grand hope is that whomever wins, faces an even more Do Nothing Congress than the last three Do Nothing Congresses that we've had, which did even less than Truman's Do Nothing Congress. That will be safer for the world I think.
In the meantime the Presidential debates have basically been a spectacle of watching how deep of a hole of madness that Trump can dig, and watching Hillary stand back and wait for the mud to fly. The polls are such that the Electoral College could swing either way, or mostly one way or the other and nobody has even the slightest clue how to read it. It makes me almost wish for the days when Al Gore wittered on in monotones and George W Bush struggled to put a string of words together.
It's certainly a very far cry from when Kennedy said that he respected Nixon and thought that Nixon would make a good President but wanted to take America in another direction.