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Memorable Debate Lines Reverberate 40 Years Later

November 5th, 2020 by dk

Presidential races reflect and then shape our national consciousness. They provide inflection points, grafting a new future onto a familiar past. John Kennedy portrayed and empowered a nation feeling youthful and vigorous. Jimmy Carter scrubbed us clean after Nixon and Watergate.

Debates often encapsulate trends into memorable moments. I’m writing this week too soon to describe whatever moments might prove most memorable from this year’s cycle of debates (though it will be hard to outdo the fly on Pence’s hair). Instead, let me take you back 40 years. Let’s review how those inflection points brought us here.

The only debate between  Carter and Ronald Reagan occurred on Tuesday, October 28, 1980. It was exactly a week before Election Day. It attracted more viewers than any presidential debate in history.

A trajectory was set by two rehearsed retorts delivered that evening. If you’re over 50, you may still remember them.

Not surprisingly, Carter’s zinger was the more long-winded of the two. Reagan had been asked about his supply-side economic policies. Reagan surprised many when he described with crisp detail how economic expansion would allow him to keep his promises to cut taxes, increase military spending, and balance the budget.

Carter was ready. “I’ve had to make thousands of decisions since I’ve been President,” he began. “I’ve learned that there are no simple answers to complicated questions. H. L. Mencken said that for every problem there’s a simple answer. It would be neat and plausible and wrong.”

Never mind that Carter misattributed the quote that originated with George Bernard Shaw. Carter’s retort has made Democrats wary of simple solutions ever since. Democrats have long considered themselves smart, well-prepared, nuanced, comfortable with complexity, and — frankly — a little bit boring.

Carter’s quip disparaged the alternative. Even when there is a simple solution to a complicated problem, liberals have not allowed themselves to see it.

Reagan’s most memorable line that evening was only four words, delivered sotto voce. Carter was discussing Medicare’s success in Reagan’s home state of California. For good measure, Carter reeled off the names of the only five nations whose economies were larger than California’s.

Feigning exasperation, Reagan muttered under his breath, “There you go again.” Reagan’s message to viewers was that being smart and prepared and informed was the same as being elitist.

Voters were offered something more than a choice between two leaders that night. One side detailed complexities that all of us recognize but few can understand. The other side shrugged its shoulders, insisting that none of the nuance was worth the bother.

Does any of that sound familiar?

Americans are not looking for answers to be spelled out for them. The flood of information is not only available, it’s become inescapable. We can’t keep up. We want to make it stop. It’s not that our intellectual engines won’t run; it’s that we can’t find a place to park.

Who wants to wrestle with climate change, economic injustice, racial reckonings, and a rampaging pandemic? Wouldn’t it be easier to pretend that none of those struggles are real or necessary or relevant to our lives?


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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