James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Remembers: Five Memorable Foreign Policy Moments in Presidential Debates

by James M. Lindsay
October 22, 2012

John McCain and Barack Obama debate foreign policy at the University of Mississippi in 2008. (Jim Bourg/ courtesy Reuters) John McCain and Barack Obama debate foreign policy at the University of Mississippi in 2008. (Jim Bourg/ courtesy Reuters)

President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney meet tonight in Boca Raton, Florida to debate foreign policy. Both men hope that what they say will move voters in their direction. But that’s not always how debates go. Here are five memorable moments from past debates when presidents took on foreign policy.

1976: Gerald Ford entered his second debate with Jimmy Carter hoping to regain momentum. He ended up doing the opposite. Ford ended an answer about his policy toward the Soviet Union by saying: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” The perplexed moderator gave Ford an opportunity to revise his remark, but he only dug a deeper hole, insisting that Yugoslavians, Romanians, and Poles didn’t consider themselves dominated by the Soviets. Ford said after the debate that he was arguing that the Soviets couldn’t crush Eastern Europe’s indomitable spirit. But the political damage had been done.

1980: The lone 1980 presidential debate is best remembered for Ronald Reagan derailing Jimmy Carter’s criticisms by saying, “There you go again.” But Carter also hurt himself when he said, “I had a discussion with my daughter Amy the other day before I came here to ask her what the most important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weaponry.” The vision of the leader of the free world discussing matters of state with his thirteen year-old daughter unwittingly handed Republicans an applause line. They ran with it. At one campaign stop the crowd roared when Reagan joked, “I remember when Patti and Ron were little tiny kids, we used to talk about nuclear power.”

1984: Reagan looked tired and slow during his first debate against Walter Mondale. Pundits began to write his political obituary. At the second debate, however, Reagan was asked whether he still had the stamina to handle a major national security crisis. The seventy-three year-old replied: “I want you to know that 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.” The quip brought down the house. The “Gipper” was back and Mondale’s momentum was gone.

1992: Ross Perot made news this week by endorsing Romney. Twenty years ago he made news by becoming the only third-party candidate to stand on the presidential debate stage. He made it memorable. He warned that if Congress approved NAFTA that Americans could expect to hear a “job-sucking sound going south” as companies moved to Mexico to cut costs. Perot was wrong on the merits—NAFTA ended up benefiting both the U.S. and Mexican economies. But his vivid phrase, which morphed in the retelling into “a giant sucking sound,” entered the American political lexicon as a pithy way to describe policies that cause great harm.

2008. Barack Obama looked vulnerable on foreign policy when he ran against John McCain. The Arizona senator was a Naval Academy graduate who spent six years as a POW in North Vietnam. In the first debate, McCain accused Obama of having spoken recklessly about striking al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan. Obama coolly responded: “You’re absolutely right that presidents have to be prudent in what they say. But, you know, coming from you, who, you know, in the past has threatened extinction for North Korea and, you know, sung songs about bombing Iran, I don’t know, you know, how credible that is.” In a single sentence Obama shifted the debate from his judgment to McCain’s temperament.

Obama and Romney both aspire to land a knockout punch tonight like Reagan did in 1984. But they could end up stumbling like Ford or Carter. Either way, it may not matter. Polls show that voters care far more about jobs and the economy than they do about who has the better plan for Iran or Syria. That caveat, of course, won’t stop pundits from arguing for the next two weeks over what the candidates had to say. Only November 6 will do that.

This article is also posted at CNN’s Global Public Square.

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