My Reaction to Another 1992 Democratic Primary Debate

In this debate, which I’m only guessing is from Iowa, we have all the candidates again except Agran, but with a new guy, Douglas Wilder. Let’s see if he’s worth his salt.

First question: what made you want to be President?

  1. Harkin: Bush is out of touch, no more tax breaks to the rich.
  2. Tsongas: standard of living is going down and our private sector isn’t competitive on the world stage. My experience in business will help me.
  3. Kerry: He leads with a gaffe, stating that he decided to be president before having a real reason to, essentially admitting he wants the job most of all. I’m sure this is true for all of them, but it’s not something you want to admit. He brings up his Vietnam experience, accuses Bush of wanting to continue the Cold War.
  4. Brown: people lost insurance, economy is down, no other politicians are getting things done, and the reason is because of special interests. He’s not beholden to special interests.
  5. Clinton: We need a national leader to work for the middle class and unite the people—the Reagan/Bush legacy isn’t cutting it.
  6. Wilder: I balanced a budget without raising taxes. Washington is full of problems. “If I can do this in Virginia, we can do it for the nation.”

Tsongas is asked why he doesnt support tax cuts on the middle class. He says it may be popular to support such a position but it won’t help us compete on the world stage. “We have to invest in the economy of this country.” Clinton has a good rebuttal about how you need “consumer cash” to get consumer confidence and get out of the recession. Kerry goes further to attack Reaganomics and pivots to healthcare. Harkin is also against a tax cut. He executes a stunt where he pulls out a dollar and says a dollar a day in tax cuts wont help feed families. He wants to cut foreign aid, especially to Germany, and put it into public works projects which he claims will in turn help the middle class. Wilder also talks about building infrastructure and eliminating waste. Brown wants to cut back the social security tax so the middle class aren’t paying more percentage of their income than the wealthy.

Kerry is asked more about his healthcare plan. Making a note to come back to this later.

Wilder and Tsongas get in a funny back and forth about the nature of the economy. Tsongas goes into his usual right-wing bullshit about small business, while Wilder says even those small business owners are also consumers. Brown jumps in and attacks Tsongas further. Clinton is brought in and calms things down, again focusing on the specifics which everyone else, in their talks of general trends and soundbites, are overlooking. More than ever, I see why Bill Clinton was destined to win these primaries. Deserved or not, he’s able to frame himself as the most intelligent of the crowd due to his focus on the nitty gritties.

Brown is the only one who really makes any kind of strong impression on me this time around, and it’s not in a very good way. He comes off as angry and wanting to tear other people down in these bombastic debate moments as opposed to talk himself up in any meaningful way. Bill, by contrast, has a talent of coming off like the coolest head in the room. This isn’t the first time he’s stepped in at a heated moment to remind the others in their fanciful ideals about some details they’re forgetting. It makes him look practical. Of course, I hate Clinton’s policies and personal scandals. I’m no fan of his and I’m looking back on these debates with hindsight, so I can’t bring myself to get suckered in. However, I can absolutely understand why he seemed like the best choice to voters at the time without the benefit of hindsight.

This video doesn’t occur in this particular debate but it’s worth bringing up. This is my favorite standalone moment from any primary debate because it demonstrates Bill’s unique ability to slither away from scandals that would wreck any other candidate. Notice how he manages to avoid giving a straight answer to the charges levied by Brown and turns it right back on him. For better or worse, that’s the kind of interpersonal skills which win national elections. If you wanna win, study Bill’s moments like these.

Then they go into affirmative action. Wilder dismisses the notion it’s unfair or hurts anyone. Kerry I think makes another gaffe when he says “If I as a 45 year old white male am asked to hire somebody, I’m gonna hire a 45 white male” and uses that as reason why affirmative action is necessary. Again, I can see what he’s trying to do, demonstrate that people hire who they know and who they’re experienced working with. But using himself as an example just made him look bad, as if he himself is a closed minded bigot who wouldn’t hire black people unless forced to by the government. He also dismisses AA as a non-issue and wants to move on to another topic.

The subject goes on to aid for the ex-Soviet Union. Harkin refuses to give them handouts. Brown uses this to go into a tirade about how the submarines stationed outside ex-Soviet territory are wasting money. He then goes off on his fellow candidates, singling Kerry out for not getting his healthcare bill passed and Clinton as well. I don’t think Brown’s tirade is totally fair, but I can certainly understand his frustration with the Democratic party especially today 20 years later. Tsongas wants to help the ex-Soviets out to keep the peace “for a sandwich, people will turn to Marxism.” A lot of the candidates harp on Bush as a Cold War president and how, with that being over, he’s no longer needed. According to them, Bush hasn’t done enough to move forward into an era of cooperation with Russia.

Tsongas loses more points with me by (of course) supporting free trade. Wilder is against NAFTA. Harkin supports increased trade, but only if Mexico and the other countries raise their people’s standards of living. I dislike him as a candidate, but this was a particularly great answer—one of the most eloquent refutations of NAFTA I’ve ever heard. And it turned out to be so true—we lowered our own standard of living when the promise of free trade was supposed to be that each country’s standard of living would raise. This is why, despite economists arguing that free trade makes everyone better off, I’d argue its actually disastrous in practice if labor laws are different between participating nations.

Once again, Brown goes off on a tirade about how businesses are going overseas and costing us jobs and if you look at who supports NAFTA and it’s the big businesses. He goes on about how his campaign is funded solely by small $100 donations and then talks over the moderator when he (the moderator) tries to get him (Brown) to stop. In the very beginning it was stated the one rule was not to solicit donations, and the mod is now pissed off that Brown deliberately broke that rule. Brown says that these are public airways and he will not be silenced. He says the phone number over the moderator’s repeated interruptions. The moderator politely rebukes Brown and the debate goes on as if that bizarre tirade never happened. Again, I agree with a lot of what Brown is so upset about and I respect his small donations campaign. But I think he’s shooting himself in the foot by going off on these unhinged rants all the time. He looks crazy doing it, even if he truly raises a good point. He’s like the message of Bernie with the temperament of Donald Trump, and it’s not a good combo. (Plus Americans hadn’t been dumbed down enough yet to accept a populist strongman demagogue in ’92.)

Then they’re all asked if they support ousting Saddam. Wilder does. Kerry won’t because he doesn’t believe we were there for a good reason. Kerry then says he resents being accused of taking money and asks Brown to admit straight up if he thinks he (Kerry) is bought and paid for. Brown doesn’t give a straight answer and the moderator moves on to Harkin, asking if he agrees with Brown on campaign finance. Harkin challenges NBC to give more time to the politicians to get their message across. Tsongas challenges all of them to agree not to take any more PAC money. Then the whole thing descends into a brief shouting match.

Clinton expresses support for Roe v Wade. Walker’s attack on Clinton for a litmus test of prospective Supreme Court justices is pretty weak. “The Bill of Rights says so many things! And the people who wrote it were racist! Would you support them too?!” It just comes off as petty and unnecessary. Then Walker admits he’d choose justices based on their stance on another issue, but denies that’s a litmus test. Brown jumps in and says all litmus testing is wrong and we should pick people with regard to stature alone. Tsongas jumps in with “so you wouldn’t pick people who supported abortion?” And at this point you just have to laugh because the whole debate’s descended into a comedy of errors. Nearly every topic turned into a shouting match or “gotcha!” moments between the candidates.

All things considered though, this was still a fun debate to watch. It didn’t change my perspective on the candidates though. Brown absolutely has his heart in the right place and the best stand on the issues, but he just comes off as unhinged and overly aggressive to where he doesn’t seem “presidential.” Kerry has some good ideas but doesn’t really make an impression because he lacks charisma or gravitas. Harkin and Tsongas are Republicans in Democratic clothing except when it comes to certain social issues. This new guy Walker was ok but hardly a standout. Clinton, more often than not, for better or worse, made himself look like a voice of reason. His closing statement was an awkward metaphor about A Christmas Carol though, so that was a weak finish to an otherwise strong performance.

1 Comment

  1. Once again I enjoyed your analysis. This was not a debate that I watched back in ’92. I was still very much a Republican voter at the time and would not have even considered voting for any of these candidates. I’m glad you watched this so I don’t need to. From your commentary if I had to chose one of these candidate it would probably have been Tsongas for supporting free trade. NAFTA and the other trade agreements Clinton championed are not free trade but managed trade. So Brown and Wilder going against them would have made points with me. This is not a debate I have any interest in watching. I trust your analysis to be accurate.

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