My Reaction to the 1992 Clinton/Bush/Perot Debates (3/3)

The Rise of Clinton

Right away, I agree with Clinton talking about trickle down economics at the beginning, and I further agree with him that infrastructure and healthcare can be reformed without increasing the tax burden on the middle class. All you need to do is sensibly scale back the military and intelligence community budgets, consolidate a few executive agencies, and end certain harmful subsidies like the one on corn products. If necessary, increase the tax burden on the rich and corporations, empowering the IRS to do so. It’s really not that hard to figure out which is why it’s so frustrating this simple idea is constantly under attack. However, Clinton would ultimately embrace trickle down himself in office, so the point is moot.

I can see why Bush lost this election, because while Clinton is saying all the right things, Bush is constantly trying to spin his and Perot’s words this whole cycle and anyone who isn’t partisan can see it. For example, his response to Clinton here is a clumsy new buzzword “trickle down government” and deflection that ignores the heart of what Bill said. It’s just fear mongering “he’s going to raise your taxes anyway!!” and when he complains government has gotten too big and he “wants to do something about that” it begs the question “then why didn’t you or Reagan do so the last 12 years?”

I think it’s really bad form of Bush to start attacking Arkansas as a state. He doesn’t even offer any provable facts and figures, while Clinton does in his rebuttal. This comes off as similar to Ted Cruz’s infamous “New York values” attack on Trump—when you thumb your nose at a whole state to spite your opponent, you lose. I have to agree with Perot that this whole sidelining conversation is irrelevant. It’s underhanded for Clinton to then jump in and feign outrage “Mr. Perot, I think [Arkansas] is highly relevant…” but I will admit that it’s great strategy. If you can be in the position to defend members of a state who aren’t on stage to defend themselves against people who seem to be talking down to them, that’s incredible form. Clinton is the only Sixth Party System era Democrat who did good in the South, and I think moments like this best exemplify why. This is the first time in the entire debate cycle where being a polished, prepped insider became a positive while Perot’s brash and blunt style walked him into an admittedly bad-faith rhetorical trap.

Bush tries to weasel back in “I don’t have a dog in this fight…” Umm, excuse me, you started this particular fight, Mr. President. You openly trashed Arkansas, a state whose well being is still your responsibility as president, while all Perot said was this conversation was irrelevant to national politics. That was a very weak and weaselly line from Bush.

Bush seems to be slipping a lot this debate. He stumbles over his words very noticeably a few times and relies exclusively on the same 2 or 3 talking points again and again. He cites no facts or figures like Clinton does. And while Clinton has a trademarked grin the whole time, Bush appears flustered and tired. According to the announcers, by this point he was losing, and I think that harsh reality was maybe weighing down on him a bit. Even someone who doesn’t know how this ended could tell Clinton was gaining momentum by this point just by how everyone’s carrying themselves on this final night.

The Decline and Fall of the Perot Candidacy

I like Perot’s response when the moderator tries to goad him into attacking Bush. “I just want to talk about the issues.” This is someone who’s like most of us, sick of the stupid back and forth, the personal attacks, and just wants to do some real good for the country. This to me is one of the infuriating things about the whole system—the media forces the narrative to be about the candidates as people, encourages them to attack each other, and then at the debates there’s always audience members who then hold the candidates themselves responsible for the negative tone of the campaign. The media wants a bitter contest because it’s better for ratings, and it’s this misplaced set of priorities which set the stage for Trump. Had he run in 1960 he would have been laughed off the stage, but by 2016 the whole format was so dumbed down, and the media kept fueling his fire with more airtime, to where he seemed like a palatable candidate to a plurality of Americans.

Ross was the only one in the last debate who plausibly denied he’s been trying to go negative, and who willingly pledged not to do so for the remainder of the race. This is him being the bigger man and sticking to his word, fighting for what’s important rather than getting down in the mud. I really respect this answer from him, but the moderator doesn’t let it go. “You don’t think this is important??” and “Well, I’ll rephrase it then” and “Then I’ll go to Governor Clinton.” Fuck that noise. Perot shouldn’t lose speaking time because he doesn’t want to play those games, and the moderators shouldn’t have the ability to box candidates into getting personal like that. This is just one of many, MANY examples I’ve given for why the debate format is so broken. It needs to go back to the Lincoln/Douglas and Dewey/Stassen format where candidates are given 15 to 30 uninterrupted minutes to speak about their positions rather than forced to react to whatever some moderator fishing for soundbites and controversy wants to hear. Perot would have done well to specifically call attention to the pledge he made the very previous debate. Had he done so, he would have gotten a round of applause and the moderator would have had to back off.

We’re seeing the first few chinks in Perot’s armor as his shtick has been analyzed and adjusted to by Clinton. And what really hurts him is when the moderator brings up the fact that Perot has a history of ducking and running when he’s not getting his way, including earlier in the campaign when he dropped out for a few months. Perot gives a pretty good answer to this, but by just bringing it up I think his reputation was damaged somewhat. If you’re explaining, you’re losing, and if you’re already the underdog you do not want to be defending your record in the final debate.

There’s definitely a double standard going on with Perot. It’s subtle, but the way he’s treated as opposed to the two party candidates pisses me off. Clinton is goaded into criticizing Perot and he instead pivots to the auto-industry. The moderator wouldn’t allow Perot to do the same earlier when he was being pushed to criticize Bush. Now, to be fair, this is on Perot as well. A more polished, experienced politician and orator would have been able to pivot in such a way that the moderator wouldn’t have a chance to stop them. Perot could have used that speaking time to talk about US interventionism and the need to end it. Still, the way the moderators constantly try to direct Perot’s answers or shut him up entirely these last two debates is clear evidence the establishment was against him.

The Most Fateful Moment of the ’92 Election (Which No One Talks About)

Perhaps the highlight of the entire debate, and arguably the moment Clinton won the election, is around 33-36 minutes in. Bush accuses Clinton of being too wishy washy “he says he’s for something but then turns around and say ‘but we can also make it better!’” which I think is an incredibly weak argument. It’s perfectly valid sometimes to say you like a policy, an idea or institution but that it could be better. This is a last-ditch attack coming from a desperate, losing candidate. And Clinton shuts him the hell up with a “who are you to talk, you called trickle down economics ‘voodoo economics’ and now you’re its biggest supporter!” counter-punch. This earns the biggest applause thus far of the entire night and even a couple laughs.

Bush’s face says it all—he’s just completely exasperated and without words. He meekly attempts to rebound with “Well I always said trickle down government is bad” but Clinton continues to talk over him. Bush is essentially irrelevant at this point and on some level even he realizes it. Clinton then brings up how, at the previous debate, someone urged the candidates to stick to the issues and professes that he wants to do just that. This is another great rhetorical trap—get in a really great dig at your opponent and then immediately take the high ground so if they hit back, they appear petty and underhanded. Clinton does here what Perot should have done before (bring up the pledge) and he shuts down his opponent from having a chance to respond in a similar way that Mondale did to Hart in the ’84 primaries, only without looking as transparent in doing so. The pledge they made at the town hall gives him the perfect trump card.

However, I think it’s lame that Clinton soaks up all the credit for “going high” when in fact Perot was trying to do just that earlier and it was made to look like a weakness. This goes back to both the double standards of the moderator and Perot’s lack of polish. If Perot had thought to specifically reference the pledge he had made to stay on the issues and not character, he probably would have earned the adulation of the crowd earlier. The moderator’s bias becomes undeniably clear the very next time Perot speaks, and just as he’s starting to answer the mod cuts him off “I thought you were going to respond to what we were talking about here?” Well, give the man a minute, will ya? He barely got one sentence of his answer out before this happened. Overall, it’s obvious Perot is struggling a bit due to lack of experience in this format, but the moderators are going out of their way to make him look bad too and that’s not okay. The first debate was relatively fair but it’s clear as they went on, word came down from the wealthy owners of the media conglomerates to shut out the nonconformist.

What’s even more amazing than Perot’s missteps though, is how unprepared Bush is in this crucial hour. The next round of questioning has him accusing Perot of hypocrisy by saying one of Perot’s associates had foreign interest lobbies. Bush openly admits he’s not sure about this point… well then why even bring it up, George? Why couldn’t you take 30 minutes and assign some intern on your campaign staff to look it up for you, and have the guy’s name and info ready to cite? This is do or die time. You can’t afford to be that unprepared when defending your throne. Especially as the incumbent with all the power of the office to help, this kind of amateur hour, unsourced hatchet job is inexcusable. And Perot expertly turns it around “And when I found out about that, he went out the door” earning a round of applause from the audience while Bush awkwardly laughs along with the man he was just trying to tear down. Bush is so dead in the water at this point even he has to laugh or he’d go crazy. And notice how he’s still going low after his two competitors have made a point by now of wanting to stick to the issues. That had to look petty and desperate to the voters.


I think the first question from a panelist is completely unfair. It goes to Clinton and basically asks him if he’s fit to lead due to his past opposition to Vietnam, wondering if he’d do things differently today. It’s disgusting to me that opposing an unjust, wasteful war is made to appear like a weakness at a debate. As if only a mindless drone marching into every senseless war we’ve started since the ’50s is the only way to be a true patriot. Personally, I think criticizing your government and culture when they make a bad call is exactly what we need in our leaders. Clinton’s citation of Lincoln opposing the war with Mexico is a great example of this principle. While he wasn’t president, 3-time candidate William Jennings Bryan resigned from the Cabinet in protest of our entry into WWI as well. Peaceful, well reasoned disagreements to policy is what often inspires people to get involved in the system in the first place and should never be made to appear weak or unpatriotic. (It was disgust at both Obama’s lack of consistency and Trump’s lack of decency which inspired me to do all this research and get passionate about our democracy again.) As George McGovern said, true patriotism isn’t loving your country simply because you were born here, it’s calling it to a higher standard.

Once again Bush sinks into underhanded territory when he tries to make Clinton out to be the bad guy for protesting “while young ghetto kids are drafted and dying.” Um, George, it’s not a protester’s fault those kids are getting drafted and dying. It’s the fault of the government for putting them there, and the whole point of the protests is to speak out against that exact injustice. It’s incredibly sleazy to try to pawn that blame off on people who are specifically exercising their 1st amendment right to try to stop that from happening. This is just such a backwards, blame the victim, sociopathic attack that I don’t even know what to say. It’s not the first time Bush has very transparently twisted words and circumstances to try to sneak in a low blow during these debates either. (Remember McCarthy.) And again, notice how he keeps going personal when the other two are making a stand not to. Perot makes a point of saying nothing about the subject in his reply, to a round of applause. Clearly the voters aren’t buying Bush’s crap.

I will give Bush props for constantly admitting some of his mistakes, and for owning up to raising taxes because it was necessary for the country. I do admire that. Unfortunately I think the wrong lessons have been learned from his loss as a result. I think a lot of politicians learned that you should never admit mistakes, as if that’s the only reason he lost. When in reality, Bush wasn’t reelected because of all the weaknesses in his debate performances (seriously, Clinton is in a whole other league), his lack of charisma and the fact that nothing special really happened during his term. He was Reagan-Lite and people get tired of the same thing after too long. Clinton lands another great dig at him, and a round of applause, when he says “the real mistake was making the ‘read my lips’ promise in the first place just to get elected.” That’s the problem with the post-Reagan GOP, aside from forcing their religion and bigotry on the rest of us. It’s the fact that their only promise, their only method of governing, is to oppose everything liberals want to do because they’re “the enemy” and no new taxes.

The younger woman panelist’s question is a typical vacuous SJW attack. “Why don’t you have more women and minorities working for you??!?” And then when Bush names one she yells “The KEY people! The KEY people! The ones beyond the glass ceiling!!” Umm, how do you define that, exactly? As Bush says “I think our cabinet members are key people.” Seriously, I’m actually siding with Bush, this question is so vague and needlessly aggressive.

ASIDE: I hate questions like this so much. I appreciate the sentiment—women and minorities need to have the opportunity to get into more positions of power. But I don’t like the accusatory tone of the question, nor do I like how it basically forces these people to name drop every single woman they know as a prop to score diversity points. It assumes that these guys turned down tons of qualified women for less qualified men, which may be true in some cases but I think is a dangerous and insulting blanket assumption. If there aren’t magically equal women politicians overnight it must be because of the evil patriarchy intentionally thwarting women because everything is sexist. It assumes that only if a certain arbitrary quota is met and there are exactly 50% women and 50% black and what have you in top management, then it’s because the company or the administration are evil bigots. Equal opportunity does not always mean equal outcome, and we shouldn’t force the latter if it means turning down better-qualified “evil” white males.

It’s like the question from last debate asking “when will there be a woman president???” how the hell are these guys supposed to answer that? If you want to see that so bad, go support a woman politician, or run for office yourself as a woman. It’s not these guys’ responsibility to magically create a woman Presidency overnight—women and minorities need to take their destiny into their own hands and run for office. What’s hilarious is how the conversation gets completely sidetracked into Saddam Hussein. The panelist must have been pissed about that, which I admit I find very funny considering how asinine her behavior was. It’s like even the candidates realize this question is complete bullshit and make little effort to hide their lack of patience for it.

Another Panel Question & Ending

The same panelist later asks Clinton if he will pledge never to raise taxes on people below a specific income bracket, after he had earlier said nobody can make a pledge like that in good faith. As Clinton says, and Bush learned firsthand, you cannot foresee what might happen as President. Any number of emergencies might come up that force your hand. I think his answer was a good one—he states all of this honestly and reasserts what he said about the folly of pledges. But he promises that under the domestic policies he wants to accomplish, no, he will not raise taxes on anyone under 200k income. Of course, this very topic allows Bush to swoop in with his fear mongering spiel. “He’s gonna raise your taxes! He’s gonna raise interest rates! Watch your wallet, America because he’s coming after you!!!” I’ll bet Clinton was pissed about that, as this panelist gave Bush the perfect opportunity to bust out his stump speech again right at the end. I don’t think this question should have even been asked considering it was answered earlier in the debate and it’s an unfair “gotcha!” ultimatum besides. This panelist really is just awful.

Not much to say on closing statements. Clinton’s was very good in being conciliatory towards Bush but firm in his resolve for change. Bush was a sputtering mess of talking point cliches, from “two weeks from now, America will make a choice…” to “god bless America!” Perot gives some great shoutouts to his upcoming infomencials, and gives a fantastic repudiation of the “wasted vote” fallacy. (Literally nothing pisses me off more when it comes to politics than the people who shame and bully others against voting for third parties and independents because “durr, you’re wasting your vote!!”) As Perot says, it’s time to start thinking with your own head, and to take the country back. If we keep voting for who we’re told to out of fear we’ll never get anywhere. Perot also does a good job explaining how his business experience is relevant to government. It’s maybe his best moment of this particular debate, the last one he or any other non-Republican or Democrat would ever be invited to. And we’ve all been the worse off for it.

This debate was really good—every single one of the ’92 debates is. Good policy discussions (at least compared to most debates), some good rhetorical parries ripe for analysis as Bush falters and Clinton gains in momentum as they wore on, and the novelty of a third choice. It’s a shame however that such a thing only happened this once.

Perot did a great job of differentiating himself from the competition at these debates. He had the business credentials the right loves and the strong voice for reform the left does with none of the downsides of either. (IE he didn’t touch social wedge issues with a ten foot pole unless literally forced to by insufferable moderators.) He’s not a crass, me me me, stiffing his underlings kind of businessman as Trump is—he makes a point of how fortunate he’s been in life plus he’s self-made. And his reforms would not alienate the right either—a lot of it is typical capitalist-conservative talking points like ending the deficit and making government more efficient. His country accent appeals to the south and middle American crowd who loathe “coastal elites,” while his obvious intelligence appeals to the left. He really was the perfect independent candidate, and it’s a damn shame he didn’t win. You can see why the two parties feared him enough to make sure this would never be allowed again, but we need to take the system back, pronto. Perot’s biggest mistakes were not listening to his advisers more, dropping out for a few months during the campaign, and not shifting his momentum to talking about genuine election reform. (IE range voting over first past the post.) 1992, and 1996 when it was so obvious they were screwing him over, was the best time to talk about it. 2000 too, with how Gore was screwed and Nader wasn’t given a chance.

Again, I generally avoid picking winners unless it’s a one-sided blowout, and Clinton absolutely dominated at least this final debate and arguably the whole cycle. He was suave, he had cited facts, he was a voice for change (that he abandoned in office) and he could empathize with people.

Bush Snr was just a terrible candidate—the Jimmy Carter of the right, as far as lack of charisma/oration goes. He’s stiff, unprepared, mean-spirited, aloof and tone deaf in these debates. If Mike Dukakis didn’t run such a godawful campaign I don’t think he ever would have been President in the first place. Honestly, the more material I’ve seen of Bush, from his debates as VP and President to his convention speeches to his inaugural and farewell addresses the more I dislike him as a person, not just as a politician. He just strikes me as a very cold, disrespectful prude. The way he demeaned Geraldine Ferraro by calling her “Missus Ferraro” rather than her proper titles of “Congresswoman” or even “Representative” was the first cue. And then how he and his VP would go out of their way to belittle Democratic politicians personally at the conventions was the next. Bringing up drugs at literally every conceivable opportunity. The personal digs here while Perot and Clinton tried to be cordial and issue-driven. The Iran-Contra Affair I have no doubt he personally was behind. Trying to take credit for AIDS relief when he and Reagan laughed about it. Calling a gay son “a humiliation” at the ’88 primary debate I saw. The list goes on and on. He’s just not a good person, at all. I have a lot of criticisms for every single President, especially his predecessor and his son. As far as impact on politics goes, Reagan is probably worse. As far as bad governance, Bush Jr is worse. But with regard to being a repugnant human being, I honestly think Bush Snr takes the cake. At least until Trump came along, but even still it’s a closer race between the two than you might have assumed before really seeing this weasel up close.

1 Comment

  1. You won’t see me often in this section of your blog but I just have to say how much I enjoyed reading an early version of your reaction to these three-way debates. It brought them vividly to life. I’m sure this one does too!


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