Bracing for the Big Debate: A Look at Some Big Moments from Past Collisions

President Ronald Reagan in 1984. (AFP/Getty Images)

President Ronald Reagan in 1984. (AFP/Getty Images) Getty

So we’re going to watch this debate tonight and we certainly hope it exceeds expectations and rises above the level of lower primate interactivity that has proved the norm in this campaign cycle.

Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump.

We’ll have plenty of coverage today and this evening, both during and after the big debate.

The truth is that intellectual discourses infrequently prevail on these occasions, as one liners typically overshadow the details of substance delineated by two competing sides.

There are some truly memorable moments from presidential debates through the years, including Kennedy versus Nixon in 1960; and Ford versus Carter in 1976.

We’re going to highlight here are favorite memories going back to 1980.

Reagan versus Carter (1980)

Ronald Reagan’s critics beat him up for oversimplifying complex problems, but the old movie actor had a knack for driving an argument with stark and memorable phrases. “We don’t have inflation because people are living too well,” he said, “we have inflation because the government is living too well.” The line encapsulated the totality of Reagan’s philosophy, which he augmented with his now famous “There you again” line to dismantle the smart but muted President Jimmy Carter.

Reagan versus Mondale (1984)

Reagan used humor – and good delivery – to capsize an already grandly foundering Democratic challenger Walter Mondale in 1984. Confronted by a reporter on his age (73) as a potential hindrance to his effectiveness in a second term, Reagan dead-panned beautifully, “I am not going to make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Dukakis versus Bush (1988)

Dukakis debated very well against Bush but he infamously fumbled Bernard Shaw’s stick of dynamite question, which the CNN reporter tossed at the first opportunity. “If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” The notoriously technocratic Dukakis showed no emotion as he stated, “No, I wouldn’t, Bernard…” Presidential politics is such a delicate balance. People hanged Edmund Muskie when he cried about his wife in the snow of New Hampshire,. Here was a case where Dukakis showed stoic poise in the face of a shocking question, and yet it reconfirmed all the worst stereotypes of the Massachusetts governor as a cold fish.

Bentsen versus Quayle (1988)

This was one of the best moments of all time in any debate: Texas Congressman Lloyd Bentsen’s debilitating karate chop to the spine of the overmatched Senator Dan Quayle when he said, “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” It didn’t matter what anyone else said after that; Bentsen won the night with one stinging line. Quayle looked like a kid on the playground who walks off the field with a busted lip in search of an aide. Of course, Bentsen and the Democrats would go on to get schooled in the general election to Quayle and the Republicans.

Clinton versus Bush (1992)

In their town hall-style debate, the elder Bush – the incumbent Republican president – looked peevish and arrogant when he fumbled a question about the national debt, obstinately refusing to understand the question and make necessary adjustments in his answers. Then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton rose and demonstrated how to communicate, leaving a slack-jawed Bush to get dragged off the field like Commodus at the end of Gladiator. “I’ve been governor of a small state for 12 years. I’ll tell you how it’s affected me. Every year congress and the president sign laws that make us do more things and give us less money to do it with. I see people in my state – middle class people – their taxes have gone up in Washington and their services have gone down, while the wealthy have gotten tax cuts. …In my state, when people lose their jobs, there’s a good chance I’ll know ’em by their names.”

Clinton versus Dole (1996)

Clinton was as good at Reagan at diffusing an attack and making his opponent look foolish for having tried. When Republican Senator Bob Dole – employing his most ominous and anti-social vocal inflections – said the difference between himself and the incumbent Democratic president was that he liked people and Clinton liked the government, the indefatigable people-person Clinton beamed infectiously and irrefutably, “I like people.”

Bush versus Gore (2000)

Bush seemed woefully unprepared in all three of their 2000 debates and hardly fit to run the country, but one could make the case that Vice President Al Gore defeated himself all three times. The sighing debacle in their first encounter made Texas Governor George W. Bush seem at least earnest and workmanlike as he took C- grade cuts of the bat while Gore came across at the microphone as a heavily breathing dork. The weirdly supercilious performance demanded that Gore recalibrate his demeanor, which made him overcorrect to remote and withdrawn in the rivals’ second debate and finally get it “just right,” be Gore’s own reckoning, in the third. The final outcome was disastrous, as Senator John McCain rightly pronounced three different Al Gores present for three different debates, and the terminally bewildered Bush was still alive.

Cheney versus Lieberman (2000)

Joe Lieberman blew this debate by trying to play nice and getting lured into Cheney’s cocoon of horror. The Connecticut senator was there to throw hard punches in defense of the top of the ticket. Instead he let Cheney outfox him, as George W. Bush’s No. 2 played the classic role of Magnum-toting enforcer. The best exchange occurred when Lieberman said, “I can see my wife and she’s thinking ‘gee, I wish he would go into the private sector,'” and Cheney in response went for the Spock grip: “Well, I’m going to help you do that, Joe.”  Then there was this gem when Lieberman said Cheney had done better economically in the past eight years: “I can tell you, Joe, the government had absolutely nothing to do with it.”

Kerry versus Bush (2004)

By turns smirking, unprepared, inarticulate, inchoate, and bubble-wrapped in his own BS, President Bush looked like he stepped straight out of that send-up of royalists by Goya in his match up with Senator John Kerry and ripe for an easy take-down. He also appeared to be wearing some kind of power pack on his back that fed rumors of someone in Karl Rove-world feeding him the answers. But the wobbly-on-his-own-legs Democrat gave his rival’s operatives opportunity to spin wins into losses and thereby steal an advantage. In the first debate, Kerry spoke of a “global test” America needs to pass when it undertakes certain foreign policy decision. Rove masterfully twisted that into a strong case for why Kerry didn’t prioritize America’s interests. Then there was Kerry’s strangely bone-headed decision to call out Dick Cheney’s gay daughter in the third debate, prompting Lynne Cheney into mother bear mode. Kerry had repeatedly riled Bush in their second encounter, but again, he couldn’t escape self-inflicted wounds that damaged him in a very close contest with the eminently beatable Bush.

Biden versus Palin (2008) and Biden v. Ryan (2012)

Joe Biden was the consummate VP candidate, putting to shame the efforts of someone like John Edwards, who in his 2004 showdown with Dick Cheney looked to be auditioning more for 2008 than eager to chuck tomahawks in defense of Kerry. Not only could Biden get tough, but he demonstrated what appeared to be real emotion in his 2008 match-up with Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and then truly taking a fight to a highly prepared and game Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan in 2012. Biden’s re-election performance against Ryan was one of the all-time demonstrations of how it’s done. Obama had come out flat-footed and arrogant (not uinlike Bush in his first Kerry debate in 2004) against a sharp Mitt Romney. By contrast, Biden presented a very willing and combative player at the right time, stemming Team Romney’s momentum and regaining ground for the Democratic incumbents.

Obama versus Romney (2012)

As mentioned above, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney outshone a lackluster President in their first debate. But the Democrat – perhaps inspired by Biden’s racing pulse in the VP debate – showed up in the second and third stanzas. Obama short-circuited Romney in the second debate when he likened his opponent’s knowledge of the military to a game of Battleship, and went for the kill in the third when he prevailed on debate moderator Candy Crowley to read a White House transcript contradicting Romney’s charge that the President had not denounced Benghazi as “an act of terror.”

US Vice President Joe Biden smiles during a ceremony at the Ronald Reagan Building September 6, 2013 in Washington, DC. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

US Vice President Joe Biden smiles during a ceremony at the Ronald Reagan Building September 6, 2013 in Washington, DC. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images) BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Bracing for the Big Debate: A Look at Some Big Moments from Past Collisions