The presidential debates are upon us. Wednesday night in Denver, President Barack Obama and his GOP challenger, Mitt Romney, will square off in Denver to talk about domestic issues. Romney has been preparing feverishly, working on zingers to fire at the president, and both campaigns have been working to lower expectations for their candidate.
Of course, in reality, the rest of us probably should lower our expectations; only once has a debate definitively changed the course of a presidential election. For all the zingers and gaffes, it’s exceedingly rare for a debate to be decisive.
Nevertheless, while debates may not alter the playing field much, they do produce great political theater — and sometimes, they have an impact beyond the election. Here’s a quick look at ten debate moments that stand the test of time.
Here are ten debate moments that are indelibly etched on the political consciousness — whether they swung their election or not.
10. “Who Am I? Why Am I Here?”
Admiral James Stockdale was a great man and a national hero. He endured seven years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, where he endured torture and deprivation. His service earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Stockdale would go on to lead the Naval War College and later, the Citadel. He was a bright man who did far more in service to his country than most of us could dream of.
Unfortunately for Stockdale, he accidentally became Ross Perot’s running-mate in 1992. Perot supporters had used Stockdale as a placeholder candidate for vice president as they worked to get the Texas billionaire onto the ballot. Then Perot dropped out, and then he got back into the race, and by the time it was all said and done, there was no time to replace Stockdale. Instead, the retired Admiral was thrust into a debate with Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn., and Vice President Dan Quayle.
It did not go well.
Stockdale’s performance made him the butt of jokes. He was portrayed as a doddering fool, rather than what he was — a non-politician thrown onto the national stage with no preparation. Stockdale’s performance certainly didn’t cost Perot the election — Perot did more to damage his chances than anyone — but it did leave people with a completely backward impression of Stockdale.
9. Poppy Checks His Watch
President George H.W. Bush was never known as the most touchy-feely of politicians. Compared to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, he was stilted. So a “town hall” style debate was always going to be a poor fit for the president. One image managed to capture the senior President Bush’s performance perfectly.
The image was a perfect distillation of Bush’s trouble. Facing off with the man who could “feel your pain,” George H.W. Bush’s lack of an emotional connection was fatal. The moment didn’t derail Bush’s campaign — he was trailing before the debate, and trailing afterward. But it was a moment that defined why Bush would eventually lose to Clinton — Bill just did a better job of connecting with people, and in a difficult time, that made a difference.
8. Bush Remembers Poland
President George W. Bush was snippy when Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., brought up the “Coalition of the Willing” — noting that only the U.S., Australia and Great Britain were part of the invasion force that attacked Iraq in 2003. “We can do better,” Kerry said.
Bush’s response was petulant and laughable.
“You forgot Poland” was vintage Bush — equal parts haughty and clueless. Few Americans felt better knowing that the coalition actually had included our great allies in Warsaw. Kerry’s larger point — that allies like France and Germany had given Iraq a pass — stood.
Bush would go on to narrowly win the 2004 presidential race, but the moment did foreshadow the country’s mood about Iraq. By 2008, Barack Obama would be able to run and win on a platform of removing troops from Iraq — Americans may or may not have remembered Poland, but they certainly wanted to forget Iraq.
7. Ford Should Have Forgotten Poland
President Gerald Ford had to overcome a lot to make the 1976 election close. He hadn’t been elected on a national ticket — he’d become vice president after Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned in disgrace. Then, when President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, Ford became President. Then Ford pardoned Nixon, making his first major political act one that outraged millions of Americans.
Ford’s own party nearly replaced him with California Gov. Ronald Reagan. By the time Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter accepted his party’s nomination, Ford was down almost 30 points in the polls.
Still, Ford managed to climb back, thanks to Carter’s weird Playboy interview and a good showing in the first debate. Unfortunately, a gaffe in the second debate stalled any momentum he’d built up.
Asked about the influence of the Soviet Union on Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, Ford committed one of the worst gaffes in debate history.
Saying that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” was rather like saying there is “no nuclear fusion going on in the Sun.” It was simply, blindingly and obviously false. Ford had obviously flubbed his response, but stubbornly refused to admit it for almost a week, making things worse.
Ford came very close to upsetting Carter, but didn’t quite pull it off. If he had that week back, it’s possible — just possible — that he could have closed all the way. The debate didn’t change the direction of the 1976 campaign, but by slowing Ford’s momentum, it might well have decided it.
6. Ronald Reagan Makes a Promise
Love Ronald Reagan or hate him, you have to admit that he deserved the “Great Communicator” moniker. His training as an actor served him well on the stump and on the debate stage.
One of Reagan’s greatest moments came during a 1984 debate. Facing former Vice President Walter Mondale, Reagan, who was then 73 years old, was looking to defuse charges that he was getting too old to serve. Some candidates might have bristled, or protested too much. Reagan used humor.
The line — “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience” — was pitch-perfect. Even Mondale was forced to laugh. While the moment did not turn the election — 1984 was one of the biggest landslides in American history — it did show that for the moment, Reagan was sharp and ever.
Sadly, that moment would pass. Ronald Reagan would ultimately go on to develop Alzheimer’s Disease — indeed, he likely developed it during his second term in office. Perhaps if Reagan had flubbed the line, it would have had a greater impact. Or more likely, Reagan still would have won going away.
5. The Sigh Heard ‘Round the World
Vice President Al Gore didn’t perform as badly in the 2000 debates as history claims he has. But one moment was magnified by the media until it became the story of the debates.
Gore’s sighing was far from the worst sin committed by a candidate in a debate, but the media was predisposed to hammer Gore that year. It’s hard to say if the sighs cost Gore the election — when you lose by less than 1,000 votes, arguably anything could have been the thing that caused you to lose. But it didn’t help.
4. Dukakis Would Be Mildly Upset If His Wife Was Murdered
Perhaps it’s unfair to criticize Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for answering a debate question without histrionics. Asked a question about whether he’d support the death penalty if his wife, Kitty, was murdered, Dukakis answered evenly.
Unfortunately, the response was too dispassionate. Shaw had pushed for an emotional response, and Dukakis had failed to respond with emotion. Had Dukakis nodded to the question — “I’d be outraged if something like that happened to a loved one, but our justice system doesn’t run on outrage” — he might have been okay. Instead, it reinforced the narrative that Dukakis was too bland and technocratic.
3. Nixon Looks Haggard
The first televised debate is also the last one to have definitely impacted the election. Going into the first debate, Vice President Richard Nixon was dealing with an infection in his knee which he had not fully recovered from. He refused make-up, and campaigned the day of the event. The result was disastrous. Nixon was sweaty, and appeared unshaven, while Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., looked youthful and vigorous. Nixon actually acquitted himself well — people who listened to the debate on the radio scored it a draw. But people who watched the debate called it decisively for Kennedy.
The performance changed the dynamics of the race. Kennedy had been trailing Nixon going into the first debate, but afterward, he took a lead that he would not relinquish. Nixon arguably won the next two debates, and the fourth debate is considered a draw, but that first performance cost Nixon his lead, and very likely, the race.
2. There You Go Again
Supporters of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have pointed to the polling in the 1980 presidential race as evidence that the race can swing dramatically, and it’s true, President Jimmy Carter went from neck-and-neck with Ronald Reagan to a blowout loss in just a week.
Still, it’s important to remember that the only debate between Carter and Reagan was held right before the election — literally, one week out. And Reagan beat up on Carter, parrying one attack line with a simple, disarming rejoinder.
Reagan’s debate victory combined with Carter’s last-minute failure to negotiate freedom for hostages held in Iran to create a perfect storm. It’s not correct to say that Carter was actually winning before the debate — his internal polls showed him down, as did Reagan’s — but the debate helped seal his fate.
1. Lloyd Bentsen Knew Jack Kennedy
It is perhaps fitting that the most memorable debate moment of the past 52 years came in a vice presidential debate. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, was Michael Dukakis’ running mate in 1988. A veteran of the Senate, he squared off against Sen. J. Danforth Quayle, R-Ind.
At one point, Quayle — who was fighting a growing reputation as a lightweight — tried to argue that he had more experience than John F. Kennedy had when he ran for president. Bentsen proceeded to take the statement and cram it down Quayle’s throat.
The line — “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” — became Quayle’s political epitaph. Over the next four years, Quayle’s misstatements and malapropisms became constant fodder for jokes. By the time he was misspelling “potato,” Quayle was a laughingstock.
But Dan Quayle was also something else — vice president. For all the damage Bentsen’s jab did to Quayle’s reputation, it failed to swing the election. Yes, Dan Quayle became something of a joke. But he and George H.W. Bush were laughing all the way to the White House.
Image Credit: Wikipedia