7 Defining Moments in Presidential Debates
Policy + Politics

7 Defining Moments in Presidential Debates

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Tonight’s televised debate among eight presidential hopefuls could determine the next GOP candidate.  Analysts and voters will be watching Mitt Romney, who shared a fiscal plan that includes slashing federal spending by $500 billion; Rick Perry, who revealed his flat-tax plans; and Herman Cain, who may be derailed because of sexual harassment charges leveled against him.   

With millions of Americans increasingly focused on the GOP contenders, there is always the possibility of a key debate moment, some defining exchange, retort or comment that makes an instant impact and leaves a lasting impression – possibly changing the course of the election.

It’s certainly happened in other presidential debates, as Jim Lehrer, former anchor for PBS Newshour and former political debate moderator, recounts in his lively and informed new book, Tension City. 

One example: The retort delivered by Ronald Reagan in his debate with Walter Mondale, his Democratic opponent, on October 21, 1984 – “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

The issue of age arose partly because in an earlier debate between the two candidates, Mondale had questioned Reagan’s advanced years and his capacity to withstand the demands of the presidency. Reagan was 73 at the time and the oldest president; Mondale was 56. Then came Reagan’s adept quip.

“If TV can tell the truth, you’ll see that I was smiling,” Mondale related to Lehrer about the Reagan line. “But I think if you come in close, you’ll see some tears coming down because I knew he had gotten me there. That was really the end of my campaign that night. That’s what I thought.”

Lehrer asked Mondale, “That very night?” (The debate took place several weeks before the November election.)

“Yes, I walked off and I was almost certain the campaign was over, and it was,” Mondale said. 

“Did you say that to anybody?” Lehrer asked Mondale.

“My wife,” Mondale replied.

In the popular vote that November, Reagan carried 49 states, becoming the second presidential candidate to do so, after Nixon’s decisive victory in 1972. In the electoral vote, Mondale carried only the District of Columbia and his home state of Minnesota; Reagan’s 525 electoral votes in that election were the highest number ever received by a presidential candidate.

Lehrer says that in the current round of Republican debates, the country has not yet seen anything that would rise to the level of a defining moment. “I don’t think you could draw a conclusion on that yet,” says Lehrer. “Whether or not people are actually going to vote for somebody else, or withhold their vote … I haven’t seen any evidence one way or another.”

In his book, Lehrer points to the Reagan – Mondale exchange as well as several other now-famous debate moments or events that are considered key in presidential election politics.

The Nixon – Kennedy Debate in the fall of 1960. Then-Vice President Richard Nixon was recovering from the flu and appeared wan and listless on TV.  He refused to wear makeup for the cameras, while Democratic challenger Senator John F. Kennedy, fresh from campaigning in California, struck most viewers as healthy, tanned and energetic. (Nixon later wrote about JFK: “I had never seen him looking so fit.”) Those who heard the debate on the radio felt that Nixon had won it -- while TV viewers enthusiastically sided with Kennedy. Kennedy won the popular vote by a 49.7 to 49.5 percent margin.

Gerald Ford’s blunder about communist domination in Eastern Europe, 1976: It was the second debate between President Gerald Ford and the Democratic challenger, Jimmy Carter, the governor of Georgia, in October 1976.

Ford claimed, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.” He cited Yugoslavians, Romanians and Poles as those who were especially independent. This was news to many across the globe, and to the debate audience, which gasped when they heard Ford’s comment. Carter walked away with 297 electoral votes to Ford’s 240.

George H. W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis in 1988: Journalist Bernard Shaw asked Michael Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” 

Dukakis gave a flat, emotionless answer startling virtually everyone with his lack of passion, given the provocative and personal nature of the question.  “No, I don’t,” said Dukakis, “and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.” That night, Dukakis’s national poll numbers dropped from 49 percent to 42 percent.

Dan Quayle vs. Lloyd Bentsen, 1988: In the vice-presidential debate \, Senator Lloyd Bentsen delivered what many consider one of the best lines in presidential debate history. Quayle’s relative youth (he was 41 at the time) had become an issue, and in trying to defend his qualifications, Quayle noted that he had as much congressional experience as John Kennedy had when he ran for president. 

That was the perfect opening for Bentsen. “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy.  I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” All Quayle could do was respond weakly: “That was really uncalled for, Senator.” Still, the Bush-Quayle ticket defeated Dukakis-Bentsen by a margin of 8 percent in the popular vote.

George H. W. Bush vs. Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, 1992: The second debate between the presidential candidates was a town hall event. While the moderator took a question from the assembled audience, President Bush checked his wristwatch. “Only ten more minutes of this crap.” That's what he was thinking, he told Jim Lehrer later. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, came across as empathetic and eager to connect with ordinary Americans. “Was I glad when the damn thing was over?” Bush later told Jim Lehrer. “Yeah.” Clinton, for his part, told Lehrer, "I saw him looking at his watch.... The impression was forming that here was a very good man who was devoted to our country but just didn't believe all these domestic issues should be dominating the way they were."