These are between Reagan and Mondale, of course. So, I don’t have as much to say about this cycle as I will with regards to future debates. (This general election series will get more exciting, I promise!) Partially that’s because ’84, similar to ’76 and ’96 is extraordinarily dull. While Reagan could be charismatic at his best, by ’84 he was slipping due to old age and the creeping effects of dementia. Mondale is arguably the very worst candidate the Democrats ever nominated in terms of his lack of charm or gravitas. (The only other one in contention for the title is Hillary but at least she inspires a passionate dislike which allows for more colorful commentary from my end.) Mondale just puts me to sleep with his terrible speeches and worse debate performances.
So, if that intro didn’t scare you away from reading a stranger’s opinion of an uninteresting series of obsolete debates, let’s press on. The first contest pertains to domestic issues. Here are my observations:
- It’s disgusting how much religion is discussed in this debate. I’m sorry, but the question “how will your religious beliefs will affect your presidency?” is not appropriate for a political discussion. Neither is the fact that Mondale is a born again christian, nor that Reagan apparently doesn’t attend Church regularly. It’s such a waste of time and an insult to the concept of separation of church and state. Mondale calls this out thankfully, but sad to say it probably cost him points in the election. It’s just nonsense from the ’80s Moral Majority.
- Mondale is dull and unexciting but so is Reagan to only a slightly lesser degree. Just like listening to his Nomination Acceptance speeches, I’m seriously wondering why Reagan was able to win two massive landslides and redefine politics as he did. He’s only slightly more charismatic than Mondale here, and if this debate is anything to go by, he broke his most important promise to balance the budget his first term. Why he’s still deified by some as the greatest (right-wing) President ever and the second coming is surprising when watching all of this in hindsight.
- Reagan is asked the same question Trump would be over 30 years later “should women who’ve had abortions be prosecuted” and he says since we have self defense exceptions for murder, we should have them in cases where the woman’s life would be endangered. But he dodges answering about cases of rape or simple choice. His rebuttal to Mondale: “you say abortion isn’t a choice–isn’t murder also a choice?” is pretty ridiculous and underhanded too. As is his line about “what kind of society is it where we turn babies away” when I could just as easily ask “what kinda world is it where government tells people what to do with their bodies and forces them to endure 9 months of hell and an agonizing delivery for a child they don’t want? What kinda world is it that brings unwanted people into the world at someone else’s expense? What kinda world is it that forces women to give birth to babies they can’t support due to the gutting of our safety net programs?” I wish Mondale had been more forceful in his responses.
- The most famous moment from this debate is where Reagan busts out his “big” line “there you go again” once more. Personally, I don’t see why this is considered such a famous zinger in the first place. It’s pretty basic and hardly shuts the other guy down. The situation in which it came up is the discussion about taxes. In the end, Mondale was right; Reagan WOULD raise taxes. So would his successor Bush when he was elected the next cycle. So in hindsight this comes off looking even weaker. In fact, Mondale expertly turns it around by reminding us the last time Reagan used this line (in reference to Medicare) he actually did go back on his word and cut Medicare after he got elected. In addition, Reagan stops talking and loses his train of thought at one point answering the questions, clearly a bit of his Alzheimer’s kicking in. I think Reagan supporters saw what they wanted to see here, ignored the context, and because Reagan won the election this moment was subsequently seen in rose colored glasses.
- I think Mondale is just too nice a guy for lack of a better word. Throughout the debate Reagan loses his train of thought here and there and trails off. Had a more charismatic or heavy hitting nominee been on that stage, he could have bested Reagan easily. Unfortunately Mondale doesn’t seize the opportunity as much as he could and lets Reagan get away with too much too often. The fact that Mondale was Carter’s VP (and therefore associated with those stagflation/malaise years) also played a part in his lack of success, I’d say, since it appeared as though the Democrats were offering up more of the same after it had been rebuked. The DNC ought to have gone with a fresh face, offering a fresh start. Gary Hart was hardly perfect nor my top choice from the ’84 primaries, but he certainly couldn’t have done any worse.
Here is the other Mondale/Reagan debate. There’s a lot more instances of stumbling over words and trailing off from Reagan. Mondale on the other hand, is more acute but no less dreary in his oration. He always harps on the idea of leadership and “a president has to know/be-responsible-for these things.” Reagan gets in the usual Republican digs, about how Mondale is soft on war, voted against such and such war-machines etc. For his part, I liked how Mondale owned his votes/positions and defended them instead of trying to slink away from it. He parries with the line “Your definition of national strength is to throw money at the Defense Department. My definition of national strength is to make certain that a dollar spent buys us a dollar’s worth of defense.” This was a manipulative tactic by Reagan–just because you voted against funding a bad tank design or a plane that the military says they don’t need, that doesn’t mean you don’t “support the troops.”
The most famous line of the debate is when Reagan is asked about his age and replies “I will not exploit, for political gain, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” This completely turned the dialogue regarding age on its head and got big laughs from everyone including the moderators and Mondale. This is one of the best comebacks of debate history, and unlike “there you go again” I think it holds up today. That said, I consider Reagan’s most effective line to be “we’re still trying to undo some of what your administration did.” Mondale just stands there and takes it, and this moment really sums up why he was the wrong person to run against Reagan, the man who had just trounced him last cycle. In Mondale’s defense, his best line of the night was “I accept your commitment to peace, but I want you to accept my commitment to a strong national defense.” That similarly got a lot of applause and support from the crowds.
Another notable aspect of the debate is Reagan’s support for amnesty towards illegal immigrants. (Compare that to Trumpism of today.) Reagan actually lays more blame on employers who encourage illegal immigration by paying them “starvation wages and with none of the benefits that we think are normal and natural for workers in our country.” Listening to the patron saint of the Republican party treat workers rights as “normal and natural” while also decrying the actions of Trump was an illuminating if somewhat depressing window into how far right we’ve fallen since.
My favorite topic of discussion was Star Wars and mutually assured destruction. I felt that both Reagan and Mondale made good, compelling arguments for and against pursuing technology to make nuclear weapons obsolete. I appreciated Reagan’s dream that one day the US might develop a technology that could reliably defend against nukes just so he could share it with the Soviets in exchange for mutual disarmament. But I also understood Mondale’s fear about delegating the idea of military responses to computers (since humans wouldn’t be able to react fast enough if a nuke is launched.) This was an intellectually stimulating conversation which represents the best that political debates have to offer.
Beyond all that, I don’t have anything else to really say. It’s a more refined, civil and educational dialogue than those which would soon follow. But I find both candidates distasteful personally, and their oration to be less-than-inspiring. (I truly believe Reagan’s supposed charisma to be an exaggeration built up over decades of rose-tinted nostalgia. He’s better than some, but I find several other candidates from both parties to be more exciting to listen to.)