This cycle is pretty special because it’s one of only two times where a candidate outside of the Democrat-Republican duopoly was ever allowed to participate. But unlike the three-way competition from 1992, in this instance Reagan faced off against both of his opponents one-on-one. This is because Carter refused to take part if independent candidate, John Anderson was invited. As a result, Reagan and Anderson debated alone. The planned second and VP debates came and went without Carter budging so finally Reagan caved and allowed John Anderson to be excluded as the date for the final debate approached. So, in total, there were two face-offs this cycle with a different pair of opponents each time. That has never happened since.
Carter is one of my least favorite candidates in terms of his oration and confidence (or lack thereof) and his refusal to acknowledge Anderson is another mark against him in my opinion. Reagan is admittedly very charismatic and full of gravitas, but I hate his policies as well as his legacy on our country. But Anderson, while far from my favorite “what if” failed candidate, is definitely a politician I admire. I found myself compelled to his policy ideas and the way he was able to appeal to both sides with his rhetoric. He deserves more attention then and now. I will admit I’m biased in his favor.
I don’t have a whole lot to say about this particular cycle for several reasons. This is actually a fantastic series of debates, not Lincoln-Douglas level by any stretch but far superior to the clown shows to come just one decade later. That’s great for our country, but it doesn’t leave me with a whole lot to analyze: there’s no great zingers or “character-moments” for lack of a better term, so it just comes down to whether or not you agree with each candidates’ policy proposals. (Which, again I stress, is the way it should be.) Many of the topics from this series are somewhat oblique to someone like me watching in hindsight without firsthand knowledge of the now outdated issues. (The discussions of oil rations and production in response to the OPEC embargo were mostly over my head, I admit.) So, this essay will be much briefer than those to come for more recent elections.
Reagan vs Anderson
The most striking thing about this debate, and its twin, is the commendable moderation, especially in comparison to all that came after. Watch this cycle and then 1988 with Bernard Shaw, or the ’90s through ’00s with Lehrer and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.
Both candidates (rightly in my opinion) call out Carter for his failure to attend. I feel that Carter’s no-show not only spits in the face of transparency but also signals a fear defending his own lackluster performance as President.
The tax and inflationary policy discussion at the beginning of the debate is above my paygrade, admittedly. I just don’t have enough information about the specifics of the stagflation era nor financial policy to begin to weigh in on either candidate’s response.
I liked Anderson’s suggestion about replacing car ownership in areas where it impedes our own efficiency–like in congested cities. I know I’ve been frustrated getting to work on days where I left in plenty of time but the traffic jams made me late. Having a hundred individual vehicles all going to the same place at the same time on a bottle-necked passageway is madness. In the cities and their immediate suburban outskirts we should have robust public infrastructure. It would be better for the environment, time and our collective sanity.
Both candidates believe in a voluntary military. Anderson goes into the problems facing servicemen when they come home and the need to incentivize military volunteers with decent programs to take care of them during and after their time of service. Reagan largely agrees, but also calls for a central force of troops ready at a moments’ notice in case they’re needed.
Maybe the biggest difference between the two comes up in the issue of infrastructure repair and maintainence. Where Anderson describes a vast jobs program, Reagan is in favor of tax incentives for the private sector to fix the problem instead. This leads to perhaps the most heated moment of the night (still very civil in comparison to future elections) where Anderson challenges Reagan to answer “where has the private sector been, Governor Reagan, during the years that our cities have been deteriorating?” Unfortunately the moderators move things along before we get a direct answer.
In another strong moment, Anderson brings up the voodoo economics zinger against Reagan’s fiscal policy proposals. He discusses how both Reagan and Carter are promising tax cuts if they win and ends with the clincher: “you, dear voters, are out there on the auction block, and these two candidates are bidding for your votes.” Anderson also doubts Reagan’s promise of a balance budget, and history has vindicated his skepticism.
Despite his reputation as a smooth talker, I personally don’t feel Reagan had that many great lines this time around, certainly nothing as powerful as the two from Anderson I’ve quoted. His attempted line, “Well, some people look up figures, and some people make up figures. And John has just made up some very interesting figures.” fell flat for me.
When the topic of religion comes up, Anderson once again wins out for me. Reagan talks about a spiritual revival in the country and uses such flimsy evidence as “under God” in the Declaration as proof this would be enacting the founders’ will. Apparently he was running on the promise of a constitutional amendment banning abortion. Anderson, in contrast, acknowledges his attempts to pass a religious-inspired amendment in the past but has since mellowed out. He had a great line in regards to abortion in my opinion, about how “a child has the right to be wanted.” Anderson also calls out Reagan’s hypocrisy with regard to state power: IE, Reagan wants a small state except when it enforces things he’s in favor of.
Reagan vs Carter
Just a quick note, the moderators mention that for this debate, neither candidate was allowed to bring notes to the podium. I’m not sure if this rule was enforced before or after this particular cycle, if they made note of it either way I missed it. But I just gotta say, it’s impressive then that they’re able to recall facts and figures as well as they do without reference material.
Another quick point I wanted to make up front is that I found both candidates to be equal in terms of charisma and oration. Despite his reputation for being a larger than life figure I actually find most of Reagan’s appearances to come up short, this included. I really don’t know what the hell everyone’s talking about who says Reagan’s “there you go again” line was some kind of great zinger. I didn’t feel as though it damaged Carter or stood out as a strong moment. At another point in the proceedings, Reagan tries to belt out an awkward attack where he calls Carter a “witch doctor” which is one of the weaker would-be zingers I’ve ever heard.
There’s some of the typical ‘Muricah “chest beating” about military buildup and each candidate blaming the other side for the decrease in military budget. Because, remember kids, any year where military spending doesn’t increase, any quarter where Halliburton doesn’t have another lucrative contract to produce more outdated tanks or guns the army doesn’t even need, is a year the communists/terrorists/boogeymen win.
I found Reagan’s strongest moment of the night to be in the topic of rising Consumer Price Index and Inflation under Carter. Even though I mostly adore Carter’s “Malaise” Speech and what it was trying to communicate, I have to admit it felt damning to hear Reagan parrot some of the sentiments from it against his opponent.
Probably the most entertaining “back and forth” moment came when discussing racial inequality, what the president can do about it, and eventually the idea of private sector vs public sector jobs. Reagan mentions how the America of the past “didn’t know it had a racial problem” and Carter rightly throws this back in his face. Carter mentions appointing more women and minorities to be judges. Reagan counters that public sector jobs don’t have as much future security or personal fulfillment potential as those of the private sector. I disagree with that opinion, and what Reagan said next about a “separate minimum wage” for young people terrifies me. (Seems like a great way to incentivize companies to replace all kinds of low skilled jobs many depend on with underpaid interns and high school kids.)
They disagree on some other issues you’d expect them to disagree on, Carter wants clean renewable resources while Reagan wants to burn more coal and drill for domestic oil, etc. But the most interesting barb for me was when Carter made fun of Reagan for quoting Democrats as opposed to other Republicans, and representing a shift away from Rockefeller/Moderate Republicans of the past such as Eisenhower. Reagan, for his part, had his best line of the night by throwing Carter’s “Misery Complex” figure right back at him. I have to admit that was powerful rhetoric, maybe the most effective of any general election debate, so I will quote it in full below:
“When he was a candidate in 1976, President Carter invented a thing he called the misery index. He added the rate of unemployment and the rate of inflation, and it came, at that time, to 12.5% under President Ford. He said that no man with that size misery index has a right to seek reelection to the Presidency. Today, by his own decision, the misery index is in excess of 20%, and I think this must suggest something. But, when I had quoted a Democratic President, as the President says, I was a Democrat. I said many foolish things back in those days. But the President that I quoted had made a promise, a Democratic promise, and I quoted him because it was never kept. And today, you would find that that promise is at the very heart of what Republicanism represents in this country today. That’s why I believe there are going to be millions of Democrats that are going to vote with us this time around, because they too want that promise kept. It was a promise for less government and less taxes and more freedom for the people.”
As much as I dislike him, I do have to hand it to Reagan for finishing this debate on a strong note. This wasn’t like 2000 where the candidate outright lied to win, or 2016 where the candidate was an idiot but people hated his opponent more. Now, this was a matter of the “wrong” (in my humble opinion) person winning fair and square, with stronger arguments and persuasive framing of the issue. Reagan’s criticisms of the Equal Rights Amendment were compelling (and the “removing protective discrimination” is a major reason even feminist groups turned against the ERA) as was the rhetorical questions “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” I think Reaganomics is a toxin which has been weakening our country since its inception but I can definitely see how many independents were convinced in 1980.
As usual I enjoyed your fair and balanced analysis of these debates. I probably didn’t bother watching them when they occurred, because I was very committed to supporting Ragan at the time,. I don’t remember anything about Anderson so I enjoyed learning about who he was. Looking back from today I am not as enamored with Reagan as I was then. He talked the talk but was unable to do what he promised. I don’t think there was anything VoDo about his economic ideas, he was just unable to put them into practice. Still respect him as a man with good intentions. I am certainly against churches telling people who to vote for but they are entitle and mandated to present moral ideas. I thin free market economic ideas had a strong influence in making the US a strong prosperous nation, And believe that Reagan understood that. I also can see more now, after reading the arguments in the Third Way book how and why some exceptions like reigning in Corporate power could also be good for the common people. Thanks for sharing these debates. Looking back it was a much simpler era than what we are living through now. And the roots of many of our current problems do go back to this era. Preserving this political era is a valuable contribution to our history. Thank You!