What Nixon and Kennedy could teach today's presidential contenders

Steve Kelman looks back 52 years for insights today.

I am preparing a lecture on the US elections that I will be giving the week after next at the Center for US Research Center at Tsinghua. One of the points I wanted to make is that US-China relations are a relatively minor theme in this year’s elections, and that, compared with the Cold War era, foreign policy in general plays less of a role in US politics these days. I had vaguely remembered that the opening statements in the very first televised presidential debate, the first Richard Nixon-John Kennedy debate in 1960, discussed foreign policy, in a way opening debate statements seldom would these days. So I accessed both Kennedy’s and Nixon’s opening statements in the first debate on Youtube.

(You can watch Kennedy's here and Nixon's here.)
The contrast was far more dramatic than I had expected.

The moderator, Howard K. Smith of ABC News, specifically announced at the beginning that the agreed-upon topic of the first debate was “restricted to internal or domestic American matters.” Yet Kennedy’s first lines in the very first televised presidential debate ever –- lines that are remembered today -- referenced Abraham Lincoln’s statement  before the Civil War about America not being able to survive half-slave and half-free, and stated that “in the election of 1960, and with the world around us, the question is whether the world can exist half slave and half free, whether it will move in the direction of freedom or in the direction of slavery.”

Nixon, similarly, began his statement in this domestic policy debate by saying, “There is no question that we cannot discuss our domestic affairs in the United States without recognizing that they have a tremendous on our international position.” Both of them argued that the reason we needed to be concerned with making progress domestically was so that we would survive the international challenges we faced.

Wait, it gets more bizarre. Both these opening statements specifically mentioned the US competition not just with the Soviet Union, but also with China! Nixon said that “we are not only in a deadly competition with the men in the Kremlin but with the men in Peking.” Kennedy stated that China had always been important because of its big population, but that now as well they were “mounting a major offensive” for influence in the world.

So in 1960, at a time China was a desperately poor country in the throes of a major famine caused by disastrous government policies, both presidential candidates in their opening statements in a debate on domestic policy mentioned China. Today, with China a rising superpower, the candidates don't bring it up.

We are, not incorrectly, told that we are in an era of unprecedented globalization. Author Thomas Friedman told us a decade ago that the world was flat. Yet our presidential politics seem to be more inwardly focused than 50 years ago!

What is wrong with this picture?