By Eric Thurm
In the rush of post-election hindsight, it seems like 2012 can be added to the list of data points supporting our rather boring emerging thesis—that presidential debates are important but not nearly as important as most people think they are. Certainly, Mitt Romney’s viability as a potentially winning candidate throughout much of the fall was due in large part to his performance in the first debate. It’s equally true that President Obama’s performance in the second debate helped staunch the wound the Denver debate opened. However, as we’ve seen, first debates are almost always favorable to the challenging candidate, but are almost never capable of swaying elections by themselves. With that in mind, let’s move to an election where the challenger proved a bit more successful than Governor Romney.
The 1992 presidential race stands out for a lot of reasons. Anyone who has seen The War Room (and if you haven’t, you should) can see in the Clinton campaign the groundwork being laid for the way modern politics and campaigning works. But from a broader historical perspective, the number of things that needed to happen for a Bill Clinton presidency is remarkable. President George H.W. Bush had high enough approval ratings that several prominent Democrats (including New York governor Mario Cuomo and Tennessee senator Al Gore) declined to seek the party’s nomination in 1992, leaving a far more open race for a young, unknown Southern governor.
During the Democratic primaries, Governor Clinton’s campaign seemed perpetually on the edge of disaster, and was all but written off until his surprising second place finish in the New Hampshire primary behind former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas and the now-famous “Comeback Kid” speech. There were several debates over the course of the primary, during which the field narrowed to Clinton and former California governor and perennial presidential candidate Jerry Brown. The race, similar to the Mondale/Hart primary campaign, featured an establishment Democratic candidate running against a younger, hungrier, centrist Democrat pitching new ideas and a new way of looking at the party.
Again, primary debates were not yet nationally publicized to the extent they are now—the candidates were far more informal and confrontational. During one exchange, Brown attacked Clinton for sending money to his wife’s law firm for state business. Clinton responded with passion, attacking Brown so savagely that both candidates and the moderator were taken aback. Clinton’s heated reaction may have had an element of political theater about it (defending his wife was important for a candidate dogged by sex scandals and in the immediate aftermath of the Gennifer Flowers scandal), but it is still a far more intense moment than any in the last couple of debate cycles.
Note Clinton and Brown’s body language: rather than facing the camera or the moderator, the two are pointed directly at each other, seemingly ignoring the audience watching at home. If this were a scene from a fictional program, it’d look more like a private moment of conflict between the two candidates than something happening in the public eye. The exchange becomes pitched as a personal confrontation. It’s not hard to see why the tense Brown/Clinton relationship remains heated even 20 years later.
Clinton managed to display his innate political talent here. In addition to shoring up his personal weaknesses by defending Hillary and directly attacking Brown’s stature to elevate himself as a candidate, Clinton effortlessly pivoted to criticizing Brown without even acknowledging his presence, saying, “I feel sorry for Jerry Brown.” Rather than presenting himself as a challenger punching above his weight class (a perception which would be easy to form), Clinton hoisted himself above the California governor. An incredibly awkward moment of tension that could well have backfired for Clinton (who could have come across as too confrontational) was defused as even the traveling press covering the debate burst into laughter at Clinton’s remarks.
As Clinton sewed up the nomination, the shape of the general election became clearer. Texas billionaire Ross Perot mounted a third party candidacy founded on budget issues that was at least successful in positioning itself as a real alternative to the other two tickets. Perot in fact led polls at various points in the campaign season. But as the economy continued to flounder and Bush came under increasing fire for violating his infamous “No New Taxes” pledge, the race appeared much closer to a dead heat, and Clinton capitalized on an enormous convention bounce.
The debates in the general election were just as interesting as the Brown/Clinton primary debates, though more for formal reasons than personal energy. First, the 1992 debates were the first time a third party candidate (Perot) was featured on a national stage. Although John Anderson had participated in one of the debates in 1980 (?), President Jimmy Carter refused to take part. Perot’s presence altered the typical dynamic of presidential debates. Normally, two-candidate debates are overtly antagonistic and explicitly pitched as a conflict or argument (the Brown/Clinton debates are actually a great example of this). The third candidate makes the proceedings seem like, for lack of a better word, a conversation. Succeeding in these debates required more political gamesmanship and skill than simply butting heads with one other candidate.
Both Clinton and Perot were elevated in stature by appearing on the same debate stage as President Bush. That phenomenon—which normally energizes challengers like Carter in 1976, Reagan in 1980, and, yes, Mitt Romney this year—was split between two candidates, making it more difficult for either Clinton or Perot to take a clear lead. How did the major party candidates deal with having a third candidate on the stage? Mostly by ignoring him, as it turns out. Both Bush and Clinton played against each other.
It’s fitting, then, that the most examined moment of the first debate was a Clinton/Bush exchange. Bush questioned Clinton’s character based on his demonstrations against and opposition to Vietnam, forcefully and clearly assuming a set of values where opposition to the war was “impossible to understand.” As with his exchange with Jerry Brown, Clinton took an attack and used it as an opportunity to assume the moral high ground.
Clinton’s reference to Prescott Bush, the father of the incumbent president, helped Clinton present himself as a candidate opposed to what he criticized as McCarthyism. Though in this case, it was Bush attacking Clinton rather than Clinton punching up, Clinton’s response defused the tension inherent in Bush’s attack. Perot was noticeably absent from this exchange—though he was a vibrant presence in each of the debates, he did not participate in any of the critical back-and-forths.
The second debate was also formally innovative. It was the first to feature that now-familiar town hall format, where voters and audience members at the debate location ask direct questions of the candidates. The format favored Clinton, who was by far the more politically skilled at interacting with and connecting to ordinary voters. It also made the debate more intimate as a televised event; the candidates were engaged in direct interaction with other voters and had more room to move around the stage.
This debate also indicated the extent to which absences can be as potent as presences. Though Clinton was widely perceived as the winner of the debate for other reasons, Bush put the nail in his own coffin in a moment that seemed to crystallize many voters’ problems with the president. The candidates were asked by a voter how the national debt had directly affected their lives, and if it hadn’t how they could then relate to the economic problems of ordinary Americans and deal effectively with the economy. Bush not only didn’t understand how to answer the question (indicating he was out of touch), he checked his watch at the beginning of the question.
Bush’s inability to understand a softball question (tell a personal story about how you’re like ordinary people) was difficult for him—though it’s interesting that his major error came when he tried to puzzle through and actually answer the voter’s question rather than pivot to a pre-approved talking point of the sort that is normally successful in campaigns. His checking his watch may actually have been more critical in confirming voters’ opinions of him as out of touch. Though Bush wasn’t in the center of the shot, his watch check was noticeable, and at exactly the wrong time. The lesson for the candidates here? The camera is always on.
By the third debate (which voters actually thought Perot won), the damage was done. Clinton eked out a solid victory (though one in which he captured less than 50 percent of the popular vote). The 1992 campaign went better for the challenger than the race 20 years later—without a successful incumbent performance in any of the three debates, Bush went down to a fate President Obama handily avoided.
Previously on Debate Night: Obama/Romney Link Roundup