This is the most famous of the debates from the ’92 cycle, because of three key moments which defined the way the public perceived each candidate. I’ll describe these when we reach them. This is also the very first town hall style debate in US national political history. So, that’s kind of a big deal. My misgivings with the electoral debate formats aside, I do like the town hall format the best if for no other reason than the candidates are actually answering real people’s questions not just some pompous moderator trying to play kingmaker with a “gotcha!” moment. (Though unfortunately that shit happens in town halls too, as we will see soon.)
Once again, Perot apparently had no say in the format and guidelines for this, which is disappointing but not at all surprising.
The first of those key moments comes right at the beginning when Perot says “there will be a giant sucking sound going south” in reference to all the jobs being “sucked” to Mexico if NAFTA is passed. This is his most iconic quote on the subject, which itself is his signature issue, and like every other prediction he has made thus far in these debates, Perot ended up being 100% correct. Trump, of course, would tap into that same sentiment, as would Bernie.
Bush literally jumps up from his chair to defend NAFTA, saying exports “saved” our economy. He completely dodges Perot’s point—yes, free trade is better for the overall economy, but the middle class ends up getting screwed by it. We get none of the extra money coming in, plus we lost our manufacturing jobs which used to allow a high school graduate to support a family on one paycheck.
Clinton tries to take the middle way between both extremes (a precursor to his Third Way in office I suppose) though as we all know he ultimately signed NAFTA.
Pledge Towards Civility
For me, another highlight comes when a woman asks the candidates why they have to be so negative rather than focus solely on the issues. This question gets asked all the time in debates. Perot I think has a great answer to this which is unique to him, where he basically can point to the 30 minute infomercials he’d paid for on prime time with his own money, which he spent not attacking his opponents but instead talking solely about the issues. Hitting below the belt is the name of the game in politics and it’s expected. But if any nationally recognized, 50 state ballot access candidate rose above that dirtiness, it was absolutely Ross Perot.
Bush side steps the issue by talking about his own character, then completely misses the point of the lady’s question by attacking Clinton. Very rarely does a candidate answer a town hall question so badly that I know right away they lost the person’s vote, but this is one of those times. And not only that, he intentionally frames Clinton’s attack from the first debate in the wrong context. Clinton didn’t bring up Prescott standing up to McCarthy to shame Bush because he (Clinton) likes McCarthy. He did it to emphasize the irony that Bush was favorably comparing himself to a witch-hunting drunken lunatic whom his own father opposed.
Then Bush puts words in the young lady’s mouth “you can call it mudwrestling…” and continues to attack Clinton’s character. Really, the more I see of Bush, the less I can respect him. He’s a slippery, out of touch old gaslighter and this response is perhaps the best evidence of that. Clinton totally dominates Bush in his next answer, so much that Bush has a noticeable dumbfounded look on his face after it’s over.
I’ll give Clinton credit in that by this point he had figured out a great way to diffuse one of Perot’s biggest talking points. When Ross goes into his honesty, integrity and removal from the system, Clinton interrupts him to emphasize that he’s been a governor for 12 years and therefore not a part of the Washington machine in any way. It’s an effective moment, and if I didn’t already know how divorced from his campaign promises Clinton would become, I’d actually be moved by his monologue here.
Perot makes a great point about the parties fighting because nobody wants to give an inch on an election year and because fighting is all they know while nothing gets done on even bills they both want. I think the moderator is pretty obnoxious in how she challenges Perot on how he’ll be able to accomplish what he’s promising, and then when he begins to do that, not two sentences into his answer she interrupts him “are you answering my questions?” Well, sorry ma’am but it takes longer than 10 seconds to answer, y’know? Like, calm down. This is yet another infuriating example of a moderator inserting their agenda into a debate, trying to play kingmaker. I absolutely cannot stand it when that happens. It’s one thing to hold someone’s feet to the fire to get an answer, it’s another to interrupt them before they’ve had time to express a complete thought. If I were in the audience I don’t think I’d have been able to restrain myself from yelling “let him finish!”
Tough on Crime
When the topic of crime comes up, the differences between Clinton and Bush are night and day. Where the former goes into a nuanced discussion of gun control, with Bush it’s all fire and brimstone. No appeals, cops can make technical mistakes with no penalty, and increased use of the death penalty. Oh and what else? Well, it wouldn’t be an HW Bush…anything…without bringing up the war on drugs. It’s hard to emphasize how often he brings this up at every major speech, debate or press conference unless you’ve painstakingly watched it all for yourself.
Again, I have to point out that the moderator seems to be trying to knock Perot down a peg. She gives this big unnecessary spiel of her own before allowing Perot to answer, and tries to box him into talking about how he’ll “get the guns off the streets” when the other candidates were able to talk about crime in general. I mean, maybe he doesn’t think ”getting the guns off the streets” is the best way to stop crime. And what then? Are you going to accuse him of not answering your question again like before? This is why moderators need to stop trying to insert themselves into the proceedings and just shut the fuck up. You ask the questions and then keep time. In a town hall format like this, you hand the audience a mic and keep time. Nothing more. The best debates are the ones where the moderators know their place. She even tries to interrupt him in this answer as well but he justifiably talks over her.
ASIDE: I don’t condone his actions in general, but Trump’s abrasiveness towards moderators in debates does make a lot more sense when you see how previous outsider candidates were treated. The process should be relaxed and civil, but unfortunately self-righteous people like this woman have forced the candidates to become more brash and boisterous just to get the word out.
Bush supports term limits for 12 years, which being the founder of a political dynastic family I found surprising. Clinton is against term limits because it will increase the influence of lobbyists and unelected staff. But he wants limits on how much you can spend and quotas on how many open public debates you attend. Perot says if elected he will only be in office for a single term—perhaps the first person to make this pledge since Rutherford B Hayes. Congress shouldn’t be a lifetime position he states. “They’re all nice people but they’re just in such a bad system.”
The Election-Defining Moment of ’92
The next question is when the other two big key moments I mentioned earlier come into play.
A woman asks how the debt has effected each of the men personally. As she’s speaking, Bush very noticeably (and obnoxiously) checks his wristwatch as if bored by the proceedings. This would be rightly mocked during the rest of the campaign. It showed him to be very careless of the people, the idea of interacting with them, and how out of touch he was. It’s probably the single dumbest, rudest and overall most avoidable mistake he could have made at a debate like this and yet he did it. Initially the Bush campaign claimed he was merely checking his watch to keep time on the other candidates’. This makes no sense for anyone who actually watches the moment play out in context, because it was the woman talking not one of the other nominees.
To top it off, Bush gave a very confused, meandering, and tone deaf answer to the lady’s question. It’s obvious he had no idea how to answer and completely lost the woman in his stumbling mess of an answer. He even tries to throw it back on her “if you’d been in the white house and seen what I’ve seen…” when the whole point of her question is about whether or not he can empathize with common peoples’ experiences. This is one of those other few times where I can definitively say “he just lost that person’s vote” in reference to a bad town hall answer. I can’t emphasize enough what a bad answer this was.
And right afterwards comes Clinton’s key moment, where he gives the most famous answer to a town hall question probably in history. It made him appear very empathetic, nurturing and in tune with what the common people were feeling. It’s probably the best example of how a politician can appeal to feelings to win over support just by answering a question. Even as an elite politician, he’s able to convince her and others that he’s able to feel what she feels. Hilariously, while Clinton is talking, the camera cuts to Bush who just looks absolutely dumbstruck. He’s got this expression like “holy shit, how does this guy do it?” I also read it as Bush realizing right then and there that he was going to lose.
I love Perot’s ruthless takedown on the public education system. It’s calculated, point by point, and told in terms that anyone can understand. It’s perhaps his best piece of rhetoric in this whole debate.
Then the final question is asking them when their parties will nominate a black person or woman on their tickets for president. The questioner says this question is for all three, but how is Perot supposed to answer? We all know now that the Democrats would send a black man to the White House in ’08 and try to send a woman in ’16 while the GOP still hasn’t done anything. In the first wrong prediction he’s made, Perot says Colin Powell will be on one of the tickets 4 years from now.
In an unplanned (?) but deeply foreshadowing moment, as the moderator presses Ross “what about a woman?” the camera cuts to Hillary Clinton in the audience. First female at the top of a major party ticket and whose life ambition was to be the first woman president. Anyway, the moderator for the THIRD time now, gets unreasonably argumentative towards Perot, constantly needling him to name specific women and when they’ll be elected. She didn’t do this with anyone else, and since he’s not in either party, how the fuck is Perot supposed to know? With this occurring three times now I have to assume the constant singling out of Perot was a deliberate attempt to make him look bad in this debate. She doesn’t do this to either of the major candidates at any point and Perot would have done well to bring attention to this clear favoritism and throw it back in her face. Again, I hate Trump’s policies and effect on our political discourse overall, but say what you will the man could really turn moments like this around and look strong in the process. Future outside candidates should study his playbook in that regard.
Aside from the awful moderation, this is a classic debate. One of the most famous questions/answers of all time, the first town hall, and of course, one of only three with a third candidate on stage. Definitely recommend watching it.