My Reaction to a 1984 Democratic Primary Debate

This one is interesting to me because it features George McGovern himself, in his unsuccessful 1984 primary bid. (I’d also love to watch the primary debates from 1972 for the same reason but cannot find them anywhere online.)

It’s an interesting dynamic going on here. The two leading candidates, Hart and Mondale, were McGovern’s campaign manager and good friend, respectively. Jesse Jackson would never have been able to run nationally as a Democrat even just 20 years earlier, and his presence in indicative of how the party realigned after the passage of the Civil Rights act. The Old Left coalition broke up and redefined itself as a coalition of minorities, women and the youth–what Jackson often referred to as the Rainbow Coalition. McGovern played a big part in laying the groundwork for that new direction by creating the modern primary system, though he doesn’t get enough credit for it today and it was initially disastrous to the party. (McGovern himself is quoted as saying words to the effect of “I opened the doors to the Democratic Party wide open and 20 million people walked out.”) Of course, with more tolerant attitudes developing over time, and changing demographics, this has led to the Democrats now having a huge advantage on the electoral map while the GOP’s angry old white men coalition is breaking down fast.

It’s cool seeing McGovern stick up for “old ideas” respectfully against Hart, who framed himself in this contast as a young guy with “new ideas.” McGovern also says he would have cut the defense budget by at least 25%. He gives probably the most eloquent answer on why throwing obscene amounts of money into the army is not going to make us safer and will in fact weaken us by lowering the quality of our education. He gets a little back and forth with Mondale about this, and later asks a question to his colleagues about what the difference is building new nuclear weapons when just 10% would kill anyone in the Soviet Union. One of the best lines of the debate comes when Hart asks George “How come Glenn is attacking me for cutting too much and you’re attacking me for not cutting enough?” and McGovern replies “Because he’s even further off than you are” to a big laugh from the audience. McGovern’s also 100% on point saying our biggest fears should be too much federal and too much corporate consolidation of power. This is even more pressing a matter today.

Mondale is pretty dead on about how the Reagan years will lead to a country worse off than it is now, and all the other candidates sort of build on that point. One thing I dislike about Mondale though is his off-putting smirk every time he’s acknowledged. I know it’s a stupid and petty thing to comment on, but for the umpteenth time, appearances matter. He just comes off with an unwarranted sense of cockiness in my opinion. It’s pretty shitty too, hearing his answer about the military budget where he basically says “yeah, I want to cut military spending…but the Soviet Union though!!!” There’s always going to be excuses to not do what’s right. One imagines that if he were running today, he’d be saying something to the effect of “yeah I support the 4th amendment too–but what about terrorism though?!?” There’s always going to be some other threat or perceived threat to justify our ridiculous military budget if you’re too weak to make a stand. The point is we don’t need to funnel more money into the military and that money could be better spent on other things. It may not be the popular thing to say, even now, but it’s the truth.

I never heard of this guy Glenn before and I’m not a big fan now. He seems like a pretty one-note “our military has to have the best technology possible!!” guy. He’s like the Jim Webb of this cycle; a Republican on the Democratic stage. It’s clear he’s on a different wavelength than anyone else.

Hart, even before the climax of the debate when Mondale famously asked him “where’s the beef?” comes off like a paper tiger. He doesn’t give particularly good answers to justify his lead in the polls, he doesn’t have a dynamic personality or clear agenda like McGovern, Jackson or Glenn do. Hart’s a marketing man who thought he could win with some buzzwords and people’s desire for “something new.” He lacked Obama’s charisma for the fresh faced “I’m gonna change things!” campaign to work. And he lacked the Trump ability to “flip the script” as well as the testosterone to bounce back from attacks. Ultimately, Hart’s the Rubio of this cycle: a great candidate on paper, but an empty suit in real life.

Jackson brings up the misery index of women and how, because women make up about 50% of the convention, there ought to be a woman on the ticket in 1984. It’s pretty off topic to the question he was asked, and I feel like this was a talking point he’d rehearsed and was waiting to bust out. It’s still a point worth bringing up though especially in 1984, and I am glad Ferraro eventually got the nomination. Jackson also has one of the best answers about the military, and how it’s not about increasing spending so much as finding another way to do things. May sound cliché but it’s common sense. McGovern concurs with this in another great answer. Even if one doesn’t agree in the “give peace a chance” style of platitude, surely soft power is a more effective tool than hard power.

One of the highlights is when the moderator proposes a hypothetical situation and all the candidates agree it’s ridiculous, and there’s a lot of good-natured ribbing at his expense about it. I know I’m biased, but all the same I really applaud George for then stepping in and segueing to how the hypothetical, ridiculous though it was, begs the question of communication between the Superpowers. He points out how Reagan hasn’t spoken with the head of the USSR for even a minute yet in his whole term. McGovern then suggests having systematic regular talks between the two, and speculates that if WWIII were to happen it would be because of a communications breakdown. People can shit on his supposed kindness-to-a-fault or naivete all they want, or call him a bad candidate because of the magnitude of his loss, but this guy is very perceptive and thoughtful. It’s answers like this which ought to show to anyone that he would have made a great President, and rise him to a level above his competitors in my opinion.

The infamous line where Mondale shut Hart down comes around 40 minutes in. I’m not sure if I’m a fan or not of the line though. I see it as more of the “style over substance,” “catchy soundbites,” chest-beating which unfortunately stick with people more than intelligent policy discussions. The repeated moments of every debate are typically those where there was an emotional appeal, or a candidate walked into an obvious trap and looked silly, rather than point by point discussion of the facts to prove. Hart was full of hot air and empty promises, true, but all Mondale did was quote a goddamn Wendy’s ad…and it worked. It was also pretty bad form to try to shut Hart up as he attempted to rebut this challenge. Mondale tries to railroad with “why don’t we let the rest of them say something” which is a tactic certain people do that I cant stand. (We’ve all met that guy who throws insults around and then tries to play it as a joke after, and that’s what this moment reminded me of.) Not a very good look for Mondale either. And the way he gleefully sneers at Hart’s flustered replies from then on is also unappealing to me personally. It appears predatory and even somewhat sadistic. I think in some ways this moment makes Mondale look as bad as Hart, in fact.

For better or worse though, this attack is credited with deflating Hart’s momentum. It was stupid of him not to have some kind of remark planned if his vague “new ideas” positions got challenged. Hart wouldn’t have won against Reagan, he wouldn’t have had some great influence on political history like McGovern or Goldwater, and then we might not have gotten Ferraro out of this election. Hart would have just been another bland, uninspiring “me too!” Democratic candidate in the 80s, like Carter, Dukakis and Mondale himself. So, while I feel bad for the guy, this isn’t some great martyred candidate like McGovern or RFK or Bernie in my eyes.

I will say, Mondale conducts himself like the “alpha male” throughout the whole proceeding. He always answers first whenever the floor is open to anyone, he mercilessly attacks Hart when he smells blood in the water, and he seems pretty self assured where Hart gives off an “I’m in over my head” vibe. It’s a damn shame these two were the front runners, since they’re the worst and least likable candidates on stage (except Glenn, but again he doesn’t really belong there.) The two most likable, who seem to have the best grasp on what’s important, are McGovern and Jackson.

Obviously I’m totally biased going in, which is why you shouldn’t take my word for it and ought to watch for yourself, but I’d say George won this debate. Everything he said was spot on and just as important today, especially his closing statement about how we arm and support every ruthless dictator we can as long as they’re not Communist. Jackson and McGovern I genuinely believe were on that stage to push important ideas that would otherwise go ignored. Hart and Mondale were there to win, and Mondale especially had one purpose in mind that night: to ruin Hart at all costs. Politics is a cutthroat business, but there’s something to be said for honor as well.

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