The presidential and vice-presidential debates demand an in-depth discussion of the most pressing issues of the day. In an era when presidential candidates rarely veer from carefully hewed speeches (with one notable exception being Donald Trump) and limit their public appearances to addresses in front of sympathetic audiences, the debates provide voters the opportunity to watch candidates think on their feet and perform off script.
The candidates certainly arrive at the debates armed with talking points and rehearsed responses, but they inevitably face difficult, unexpected questions and are expected to give thoughtful, substantive answers. A candidate’s performance in the debates can make or break an election. Indeed, many of the most memorable moments of an election campaign originate at the debates.
In 1960, Richard Nixon and John Kennedy participated in the first general presidential debates. Presidential debates didn’t reemerge until the 1976 election, largely because the candidates refused to take part and because the Communications Act of 1934 required that networks give equal air time to every candidate. In 1975, the Federal Communications Commission changed their equal-time rules to allow the broadcast of debates by major party candidates as long as they are considered “bona-fide news events, sponsored by non-broadcast entities, and carried in their entirety.” The League of Women voters stepped in and sponsored the debates from 1976 to 1988, when the Commission on Presidential Debates was established.
Here are some famous—and infamous—lines from past debates.
Jaws dropped when President Gerald Ford seemed to have no grasp of the political climate in Europe.
Ford: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration."
At the debate between Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter, Reagan asked voters to consider if their lives had improved during the Carter administration.
Reagan: "Ask yourself, 'Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?”
Ronald Reagan chuckled as he uttered an incisive one-liner in response to Jimmy Carter’s reference to Reagan’s votes against Medicare and Social Security benefits as governor of California.
Reagan: "There you go again."
Former vice president Walter Mondale referred to a Wendy's advertising campaign that compared the size of its burger to the competitor’s when he attacked his rival, Sen. Gary Hart.
Mondale: "When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad, 'Where's the beef?' "
Ronald Reagan often took advantage of his eloquence and sense of humor in the presidential debates, delivering sharp-tongued barbs while maintaining a sly smile. Addressing the concern over his age (he was 73 when he was reelected in 1984), Reagan said:
"I want you to know also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."
Democratic candidate Lloyd Bentsen suggested that Republican candidate Dan Quayle didn’t have enough experience to serve as vice president.
Quayle: "I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency."
Bentsen: "I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
During the general election campaign in 1988 Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis was often criticized as stiff and lacking in passion. Debate moderator Bernard Shaw attempted to elicit emotion from Dukakis with this question: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Many observers believe that Dukakis’s flat reply doomed his candidacy.
Dukakis: “No, I don't, Bernard. And I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.”
Adm. William Stockdale, vice-presidential running mate to independent candidate Ross Perot, elicited shock and laughter when he fumbled his introduction.
Stockdale: "Who am I? Why am I here? I'm not a politician."
Al Gore mocked President George H.W. Bush for taking credit for playing a major role in ending the Cold War.
Gore: “George Bush taking credit for the Berlin Wall coming down is like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise.”
Vice President Dick Cheney learned that there’s a big difference between .org and .com at the end of a website name. Responding to attacks by Sen. John Edwards about Halliburton, the oil-services company that Cheney headed before becoming vice president and that was awarded several lucrative contracts in Iraq, Cheney urged viewers to seek out the truth from a website, factcheck.com. He should have said factcheck.org. Internet users who followed Cheney’s advice were redirected to a page that read, “Why we must not re-elect President Bush: a personal message from George Soros.”
Cheney: “They know that if you go, for example, to FactCheck.com, an independent Web site sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania, you can get the specific details with respect to Halliburton.”
Texas governor Rick Perry apparently didn't spend enough time studying his notes for the debate in Rochester, Michigan. He said that as president he'd eliminate three government agencies, and when he attempted to list them, he could only remember two: Commerce and Education. He spent the next 53 seconds uncomfortably trying to come up with the third. Finally, he gave up and uttered, "Sorry. Oops." Several minutes later he remembered the third, "By the way, that was the Department of Energy I was reaching for a while ago."
Responding to a question about pay equity the workforce, Republican nominee Mitt Romney said that when he took office as governor of Massachusetts he was disappointed with the lack of women applicants for cabinet positions and made an effort to recruit women. "We took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our Cabinet. I went to a number of women's groups and said, 'Can you help us find folks,' and they brought us whole binders full of women." The "binders full of women" quote took on a life of its own on social media sites.
For some, Donald Trump is a no-nonsense candidate who is unafraid to give voice to the worries and fears of a nation; for others, he is loud and vulgar. In any case, his words rarely fail to offend someone, "This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish." A fellow debater, Scott Walker, who ended up withdrawing from the race, managed to ding both the sitting president and the GOP front-runner, "We don't need an apprentice in the White House. We have one right now."
Largely due to the antics of Donald Trump, the race for the 2016 Republican nomination provided an unending string of shocking statements. Trump seemed to have hit a new low at the March debate, when he referred to the male anatomy. When Marco Rubio implied that Trump's small hands indicated another part of his body might be similarly petite, Trump replied, "Look at those hands. Are they small hands? And he referred to my hands — if they're small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there's no problem, I guarantee."