My Reaction to the 1976 and 1996 General Election Debates

So, this must seem strange, to group two non-consecutive cycles of debates together into a single post. The reason I’m doing so is simple: these are by far the two least interesting general election contests and I just don’t have a lot to say about them. There were no exciting zingers nor any particularly interesting policy positions for me to pick apart. The candidates include three of the least exciting ever to make it to the national election with Carter, Ford and Dole, the last of which even seemed to suck all the charisma out of Bill Clinton with his presence. At least, say, Bush or Trump inspire a passionate response in how much I dislike them. These guys inspire only apathy and boredom.

All of that said, however, I want to be thorough with this series. I want to watch everything (and I did) to get the clearest, most comprehensive picture of American history. One might disagree with my political views, and I’m sure many do, but let no one say I didn’t take the time to do my research. So, while I don’t have a whole lot to say about these 5 forgettable excursions, let me at least offer some basic observations.

1976

These are the Jimmy Carter v Gerald Ford debates, the first election where national debates became an unbroken continuous tradition following three whole cycles of no-shows. It still pisses me off we never got to see any from 1964 through 1972, since those are some of the most fascinating elections in our history. Imagine witnessing Goldwater vs Johnson and McGovern vs Nixon. Instead, we get one of our worst, least exciting elections in 1976. This is one of the least inspiring choices we ever had to endure; the man responsible for pardoning Nixon, with the reputation for being a goofball, or the stiff awkward Peanut farmer from Georgia. Both of whom gave two of the absolute worst acceptance speeches from their respective parties too, for what it’s worth. And neither of these men would have ever been nominated in normal circumstances. Ford wasn’t elected president and never would have been had he been forced to compete in a primary. He just was lucky to be in the right place at the right time to ascend as a result of Watergate. Carter only got elected on a wave of anti-establishment, anti-Republican sentiment as a result of Watergate. When Carter was up against a halfway decent politician for a change, he got absolutely demolished in a generation-defining election.

In the first debate, the most exciting thing that happens is the audio cuts out towards the end. The most interesting issues discussed are when the moderators bring up the FED and the intelligence communities, wondering if there ought to be more laws and direct controls on them. To my immense disappointment, and further proof that once JFK was dead these crucial topics have been swept under the rug forever more, both candidates are in agreement the FED should be independent and largely side-step the idea of laws governing the FBI, NSA, etc. I guess there’s some hope in that these issues were being talked about in 1976 at least. I can tell you with confidence that it hasn’t been breached at any debate in the 80s or 90s and by now these positions are basically enshrined.

Dismantling or at least restructuring the FED and consolidating (as well as reigning in) the intelligence community would be two of my chief goals if I were President.

  1. I think it’s important that the money supply not be subjected to the fickle whims of political leaders certainly, but there are surely better ways to accomplish this than allowing a semi-private, semi-publicly owned central bank to have total control. I don’t claim to know all the ins and outs of monetary policy as a 27-year old who’s only been diligently researching these things since 2016. But my proposed solution at this particular moment is laid out in my constitutional reforms project: having a separate, unelected, technocratic house of the legislature oversee the money supply.

  2. As far as the intelligence agencies, their greatest asset to democracy is also their most terrifying pitfall in that they’re less accountable to the President than other agencies. I can see the potential benefit to a final stop gap to overthrowing a tyrant or unstable demagogue in the Oval Office. But I fear that an NSA with full access to all of our electronic communications will eventually be able to blackmail, frame or control candidates who’ve spent most of their lives creating digital footprints in the future. Turning them into the President’s yes men, something akin to Nixon’s CREEP would be terrifying as well. There has to be a middle path.

I know I just veered off into my own theoretical positions on two taboo issues rather than analyze this debate, but seriously these guys just don’t give me much to work with. Anyone who takes issue with my lack of in-depth commentary, I challenge you to watch these and not fall asleep or drift off.

The most famous moment of these debates was in the second one with Ford’s gaffe where he said Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination, and his refusal to clarify that statement afterwards in the debate itself or to the press. This just furthered the reputation that he had accrued of being incompetent and oafish. To be fair to him, I think it’s pretty obvious Ford was talking in a spiritual/morale sense. As in, the Eastern Europeans know America has their backs, so they do not feel completely snuffed out by Russia. But…as I’ve been saying…appearances are everything. And the average voter doesn’t want to do some nuanced analysis of an unexpected moment, they take things largely at face value and, nowadays, what the evening news (or their friends of Facebook/Twitter) tell them they should think about things like this. Ford should have made his point more clear, especially after a moderator called him on it. Also, while he probably meant American support would/was looking out for Eastern Europe I’m sure such platitudes meant little to those actually being snuffed out and subjugated by the Soviets. In short, Ford meant well but this was still a gaffe.

Some interesting points about the 3rd debate: name-dropping William F Buckley and Carter not having responses/rebuttals to certain answers by Ford. Really shows how influential a political theorist Buckley was to be name-dropped by a President like that. I think not having a response of any kind is bad form. Even if you have nothing to say in direct response, take the opportunity to talk and use it to spin the conversation to something you CAN discuss which makes you look good. Otherwise this was pretty unremarkable. I think even more boring than the Dole/Clinton debates. Speaking of which….

1996

These are the ’96 debates between Clinton and Dole. They are extraordinarily dull. There’s no big famous moments or lines, no heated back and forth, no historical underdog making a fool of an establishment politician, no third party candidate,* just…blah.

There’s a funny moment in the first one where they continuously throw around the “are you better off than you were 4 years ago” line which seems like good fodder for an SNL skit. And Dole’s “I like lawyers” answer to one of the questions got a chuckle out of me. There’s some lame deflection “I don’t think we should politicize this issue”/”I think it’s inappropriate that my opponent doesn’t want to politicize this issue, but they just politicized that issue” etc. Still, notice how controlled and dignified this is in comparison to what would come soon after. There are a lot of moments of “I agree with what he said” and “we want the same things, we just disagree with how you get there.”

It’s a respectful, mature discussion between two experienced politicians. But considering how much of a longshot Dole was against such a popular incumbent during the unprecedented tech boom, he really needed to set the room on fire in order to have a prayer of winning. Instead, it’s like he already resigned himself to the reality he was going to lose and this whole debate is just fulfilling an electoral obligation. This whole debate has an air of just going through the motions rather than an impassioned contest of two charismatic and idealistic standard-bearers. It’s a shame too because I actually like Dole very much for a Republican. (I hope that doesn’t sound too backhanded, I just mean as a right-wing conservative he’d be far from my first choice but I wouldn’t be upset if he won and would trust him to do a good job on enough issues to earn my respect.) Young Dole, from his 1980 and 1988 primary performances, had a decent amount of gravitas and reasonable positions compared to his peers. It just feels like he unfortunately wasn’t able to get nominated until it was too late and his age nerfed his potential. I’d love to have seen an ’80s-vintage Dole in a one-on-one national debate.

*ASIDE: Perot should have been at these debates. It would have been a lot more fair as well as interesting. But after his surprising success in ’92, the powers that be changed the rules and made it a lot harder to get invited to the debates. (One must be at 15% in I believe 3 different polls, essentially a death sentence to independents and third parties.) Unfortunately, 1992 really was a once in a lifetime opportunity to buck the system and Perot fucked it up by not listening to his advisers and temporarily dropping out only to haphazardly jump back in. To tie this into the modern day, I also think Trump and Sanders, two independents hijacking the major parties, will never happen again either. The parties will probably institute rules that you have to be registered for X number of years (to knock out a future Sanders) and the RNC will almost certainly institute Superdelegates like the DNC does (to knock out a future Trump.) I certainly hope I’m wrong but you can mark my words these “reforms” will creep in over the next ten years.

The second debate is more of the same. The commentators in the beginning make a good point in why Dole lost; he didn’t go negative, or at least not enough, to convince the people to “fire the President.” Incumbent advantage is a real thing, especially when things are going well, and with the tech boom people certainly felt content with Clinton at the time. You have to be a once in a lifetime politician, and/or the incumbent has to be doing a terrible job, to succeed in that. This also reveals a possible selfish/dark undercurrent to Clinton’s otherwise honorable “I will make this election about the issues, not insults” pledge. By declaring that, it makes Dole look bad if he insults, yet he NEEDS to insult in order to have a chance to win.

Dole shows his awkwardness with his lame “sports” update in the beginning.

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