My Reaction to a 1980 Republican Primary Debate (Bush v Reagan)

As bizarre as it may seem today, there were apparently no Republican primary debates held between the 1948 and 1980 cycles. I’ve done a lot of research on the topic and to the best of my abilities, this shocking gap in what has since become a routine function of the election process is, in fact, real.

This is the last of the one-on-one primary debates we’ll look at as part of this series; every other entry I will examine consists of a crowded field.

This one is between Reagan and Bush and another pretty dull debate at first. But it begins to get heated around ten minutes in, once Reagan flares up against Bush’s tax plan, and Bush enthusiastically (the most animated I’ve ever seen him, in fact) fires back. I hate to agree with Bush, but he is 100% correct about Reagan’s insane tax plan. The things he warns about in this debate, such as increased deficit, eventually did come to pass because of the disastrous Reagan years. The problem is Reagan was a terrific fertilizer salesman, able to sell ideas that aid moneyed interests more than the common people and get them excited for these policies against their own self-interest. That awful “multiplier effect” soundbite is a perfect example, and it ignores how the tax cuts to the rich Reagan gave us does exactly what he says it won’t do here. That being, the money gets “buried in a tin can in the backyard” (really hidden in an offshore bank account) and does nobody any good. Bush is a stiff board with an off-putting smile as compared to Reagan’s charisma, so the fact that his plan makes more sense is rendered completely meaningless to the crowd.

Seeing Reagan get in a lot of applause and laughs was very disheartening, but it’s a great lesson in how to appeal to people in politics. It’s not about “boring” facts and figures, it’s about personality and emotional appeals. It’s often a shame, but that’s the way it is. In fact, it’s almost amazing the way Reagan is able to control the room from the minute the debate begins, taking the time to read an article which supports some of his earlier claims from, I assume, previously in the primary. While he reads it, the camera cuts to Bush looking around with kind of an awkward “what am I doing here? What do I do now?” expression on his face. The contrast is stunning. I didn’t understand Reagan’s appeal very much when watching his RNC speeches or general election debates, but seeing this I get a better sense of why he seemed like such a larger than life rock star compared to the milquetoast Carter, Mondale and Bush. I hate the term “alpha male,” but there really is no other way to describe it. He’s an “alpha” and Bush is a “beta.” (Maybe a better phrase would be “natural born leader” vs Bush’s “follower.”)

It’s nice to see the moderator challenge their shared notion that government is this horrible evil thing which must be killed at all costs. We need conservatives in government; conservatives are not bad people. We need someone to keep government in check, sensibly trim the budgets or scale back the size of certain programs, etc. What Reagan and the Bush dynasty did, however, was usher in a whole new era of demonizing the government and sabotaging it in office, which has led us to the modern norm of crazy high deficits, privatization and stagnant wages as there is no check on corporate power. When you remove government entirely, the “private sector” they’re so happy to talk up as the solution to everything, then fills the void and becomes a restrictive, authoritarian force all its own. Remove the democratically elected government and unaccountable oligarchical corporations would take its place and become its own government by default. Inverted Totalitarianism. Remove the regulations Bush is whining about, and you get businesses treating employees like they’re expendable, putting defective or unsafe products on the shelves, and polluting our delicate environment with no recourse.

I disagree with the three essential functions of government which Reagan outlines (protection from foreign as well as domestic threats, and stabilizing money supply) in answer to the same question. I’d say the three essential functions are to provide life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all its citizens, as outlined in the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution outlines how our government works, but the Declaration outlined our founding ideals, and how the suppression of them by Britain justified our Revolution. Those functions are vague, yes, but I think they could broadly be defined as, respectively: 1) insuring adequate protection from foreign and domestic threats as well as healthcare, 2) protecting us from tyranny borne by either the public or the private sector, 3) and finally creating an egalitarian society where every citizen has the means to achieve whatever they work towards regardless of race, sex, sexuality or religion. Obviously the modern Republican solution to privatize everything cannot create such a society as this, because the business world is dominated by the profit motive, so all else becomes a distant second. Wealth is then funneled up to the top, and the masses are forced into wage slavery to scrape by a meager living. We’ve been seeing this trend occur (look at the wage gap between rich and poor) since the 1970s when Labor Unions began to lose influence in the Democratic Party, and of course the following Reagan years. Giving everyone a tax cut means nothing if you have almost no income in the first place, and helping billionaires essentially pay nothing means they can use their obscene wealth to buy government officials. The government largely doesn’t work because of corruption due to private interests, removing the public sector isn’t snuffing out the problem it’s cutting out the middle man and leaving us at the mercy of our true oppressors. To this day, I’m not sure if Reagan honestly meant well in this ethos of his, or if he knew exactly what his policies would lead to but was bought out.

It’s interesting to see John Anderson get a shout out at least. They’re asked if his running as an independent would change anything. Bush says no, gives a dismissive response about how independents never do well, and has the gall to say our two party system provides “stability.” (For the oppressive status quo, sure.) The moderator speculates that John Anderson might get up to 28% of the vote [Ultimately he’d get only 6%.] If only that had happened. Reagan’s answer is interesting in how he believes Anderson would suck more votes away from Carter than the Republicans. Imagine that, an ex-Republican supposedly being more popular with the Democrats! Neither that nor the inverse would ever be true today considering how polarized we’ve become. In any case, Reagan’s answer explains why he was so adamant that Anderson be included on the general election debates, and assuming Carter agreed with his assessment, it also sheds light on why Carter refused to participate if Anderson were invited.

Then they go on to discuss foreign policy, and proceed to chest-pound about who will stop Castro the fastest. It’s really disgusting to listen to these men (and others in various debates I’ve seen) have this entitlement that they act like they should be able to determine the kind of government/economy sovereign nations in Latin America establish for their own people. If Grenada wants to be Communist, by what right does America have to invade and dictate their own domestic policy to them? Wouldn’t we be scared and vengeful if China, Russia or anywhere else talked about us this way–much less made good on their threats? This arrogant attitude that America has the authority to decide the fate of other countries is a pillar of neoconservatism, perhaps the worst ideology which has ever gained mainstream acceptance in US political discourse. It’s an attitude that I’d love to see die once and for all in my lifetime, as it’s done nothing but sap our domestic resources from their proper funding and foster dissent against us abroad. Also worrying is how Bush openly acknowledges his own Orwellian doublespeak here, when he makes a point about “quarantining” Cuba as opposed to blockading, and accuses Communists of “exporting” Revolution rather than supporting other communist movements that naturally occur in other countries. He’s deliberately sugar-coating the idea of a blockade, and demonizing communists with this word choice.

They then begin to take questions from the audience. I don’t know if it’s a failure of the moderator/organizers making the rules known or if Bush is just that awkward, but he keeps asking them who the question is directed to, when it’s pretty obvious they’re both supposed to answer. (The whole point of a debate is to compare and contrast the answers of both candidates, after all.) One interesting question is when they’re asked who their running mates would be, considering the two on stage ended up being running mates, (and Bush’s own VP is often considered one of the worst ever.) Bush gets a good applause line when he emphasizes that he’d consider women too.

Reagan’s closing statement is a shameless appeal to people (that’s a rhetorical/Logic term) while Bush’s is a nice summary of his plan. Again, Reagan frames government as this monolithic evil entity that exists solely to frustrate the dreams of people. Now we have big business to do that for us, yet a significant chunk (the majority?) of the population have been brainwashed to think wage slavery and increasing economic disparity is not only normal but some twisted expression of the America dream.

Overall, I’m surprisingly glad I watched this. I learned more about Anderson’s appeal or at least his perceived appeal. I witnessed Bush and Reagan’s best debate performances I’ve seen yet and gained new insight into why the latter was so appealing even if I completely disagree with him about everything. I’ve never seen such a skewed, black/white, money-centric view of the world before, and I’m saddened I grew up in a world where this misguided and dangerous man was able to infect the entire political discourse of the country. We’re still climbing out of the hole he left us in, and us Millennials were hit particularly hard by his supply side “trickle down” economics.

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