from The Water's Edge

TWE Remembers: Seven Memorable Presidential Debate Moments

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debating at Hofstra University on September 26, 2016.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debating at Hofstra University on September 26, 2016. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

October 21, 2020

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debating at Hofstra University on September 26, 2016.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debating at Hofstra University on September 26, 2016. Lucas Jackson/Reuters
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President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are set to debate tomorrow night in Nashville. Belmont University is hosting the event, and NBC White House correspondent Kristen Welker will moderate. She has named six debate topics: fighting COVID-19, American families, race in America, climate change, national security, and leadership.

So there should finally be discussion of foreign policy, which has largely been missing in the campaign so far. That’s understandable. Events overseas are not a high priority for most Americans right now. But whoever takes the oath of office next January 20 won’t have the luxury of focusing only on the country’s domestic problems. He will need to tackle a range of foreign policy challenges as well. Whether those challenges are met or flubbed will go a long way toward shaping the security and prosperity of the United States.

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Biden and Trump, however, will be thinking short term rather than long term tomorrow night. Their objective will be to move undecided voters in their direction. Sometimes what a candidate says about foreign policy can help on that score. But sometimes it can hurt. Here are seven memorable moments from past debates when presidential candidates took on foreign policy.  

1976: Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford entered his second debate with Jimmy Carter hoping to regain momentum. He ended up doing the opposite. Ford concluded an answer about his policy toward the Soviet Union by saying: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” The perplexed moderator gave Ford an opportunity to revise his comment, but he only dug a deeper hole, insisting that Yugoslavians, Romanians, and Poles didn’t consider themselves dominated by the Soviets. Ford said after the debate that he was arguing that the Soviets couldn’t crush Eastern Europe’s indomitable spirit. But the political damage had been done.   

1980: Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan

The lone 1980 presidential debate is best remembered for Ronald Reagan derailing Jimmy Carter’s criticisms by saying, “There you go again.” But Carter also hurt himself when he said: “I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weaponry.” The vision of the leader of the free world discussing matters of state with his thirteen-year-old daughter handed Republicans an applause line. They ran with it. At one campaign stop the crowd roared when Reagan joked, “I remember when Patty and Ron were little tiny kids, we used to talk about nuclear power.”

1984: Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan

Reagan looked tired and slow during his first debate against Walter Mondale. Pundits began to write his political obituary. At the second debate, however, Reagan was asked whether he had the stamina to handle a major national security crisis. The seventy-three-year-old replied: “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The quip brought down the house. The “Gipper” was back and Mondale’s momentum was gone. 

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1992:  George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot

Three decades ago Ross Perot made news by becoming the first, and so far only, third-party candidate to qualify for the presidential debate stage. He made his appearance memorable. He warned that if Congress approved NAFTA that Americans could expect to hear a "job-sucking sound going south" as companies moved to Mexico to cut costsPerot was wrong on the merits—while NAFTA created losers as well as winners on the job front, on the whole it was a net benefit to the U.S. economy. But the Texan’s vivid phrase, which morphed in the retelling into “a giant sucking sound,” entered the American political lexicon as a pithy way to summarize the case against free trade.  

2008: John McCain and Barack Obama

Barack Obama looked vulnerable on foreign policy when he ran against John McCain. The Arizona senator was a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who had spent six years as a POW in North Vietnam. In the first debate, McCain accused Obama of having spoken recklessly about striking al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan. Obama responded: “You’re absolutely right that presidents have to be prudent in what they say. But, you know, coming from you, who, you know, in the past has threatened extinction for North Korea and, you know, sung songs about bombing Iran, I don’t know, you know, how credible that is.” In a single sentence Obama shifted the debate from his judgment to McCain’s temperament.

2012: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had similar views on most foreign policy issues, so instead of debating specific policy measures, the two tried to prove who was better equipped to be commander in chief. During the third debate, Romney claimed that the U.S. Navy was at its smallest since 1917. Obama responded: "You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go under water, nuclear submarines." The line sparked a frenzy on Twitter and the phrase “horses and bayonets” became the top rising search term of the night on Google.

2016: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

Some debates produce moments of soaring rhetoric. Others generate moments reminiscent of a schoolyard playground. One example of the latter came during the third debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. When the reality TV star claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin did not respect either Clinton or Obama, the former secretary of state responded: “Well, that's because he would rather have a puppet as president of the United States.” That got Trump’s dander up and led to the following exchange:    

Trump: No puppet, no puppet. 

Clinton: And it's pretty clear— 

Trump: You're the puppet. 

Clinton: It's pretty clear you won't admit— 

Trump: No, you're the puppet.  

Clinton closed the exchange by arguing that Russia was clearly meddling in the election and that Trump had encouraged it.

Biden and Trump both would love to land a knockout punch tomorrow night like Reagan did in 1984. But they could end up stumbling like Ford in 1976 or Carter in 1980. Either way, a debate success or a misstep will likely matter far less than in past elections. As of this morning, forty million Americans have already voted. That number will be even higher by the time the curtain goes up on the debate tomorrow night. None of this, however, will stop pundits from arguing over the next two weeks about who got the better of the exchange. Only Election Day will settle that question.

Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.

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