Debate in 1980 Defined Liberals and Conservatives

The first Trump-Clinton debate garnered the largest television viewership of any presidential debate in American history. The last of their three debates was the third most watched. The silver medalist in debate viewership happened 36 years ago today.

The second most watched debate in American television history occurred on Tuesday, October 28, 1980. President Jimmy Carter agreed to debate his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, only once. It was exactly a week before Election Day.

Those 90 minutes of television have shaped more than a generation of political polarity. Donald Trump may have taken the theme set that night to its not-so-logical conclusion, so what happened that night remains relevant today.

The most memorable lines from Carter and Reagan that night have reverberated through every partisan debate in the United States since. That night a trajectory was set by two rehearsed retorts. 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 what his eventual running mate, George H.W. Bush, had disparaged during a primary debate as “voodoo economics.” Reagan surprised many when he was able to easily describe how economic expansion could 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. Many wonder why conservatives have come to dominate talk radio so completely, but I think the answer is really this, um, simple.

Simple solutions just don’t sound liberal. Democrats, including the party’s current presidential nominee, have made a name for themselves as smart, well-prepared, nuanced, comfortable with complexity, and — frankly — a little bit boring. Radios have multiple preset buttons, so listeners use them.

Reagan’s most memorable line that evening was only four words. It drove home the same distinction to viewers. Carter had just defended Medicare and suggested that “we have an opportunity to move toward national health insurance.”

Rather than fight for the changes he had proposed to Medicare, Reagan feigned exasperation. Almost under his breath, he said, “There you go again.” It’s no coincidence that Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence used a variant of that same line against his Democratic opponent Tim Kaine.

“There you go again” has a clear and powerful subtext: “Would you really want to vote for a smarty-pants know-it-all? I’m the candidate you’d rather have a beer with, so vote for me.”

It’s as if voters have been offered something more than a choice between two leaders. Democrats promise to be effective managers, while Republicans portray a beer buddy in high office.

Simple answers and a persona that promises not to condescend has reached its apex in a reality TV star who decided to try his hand at politics. People were drawn to him. He stood out in a crowded field of Republican candidates. Love him or hate him, he earned that first preset button. He’s entertaining.

Dangerously, his lack of preparation or plans has become part of his allure.

Trump has turned the axis of political debate 90 degrees. His commitment to conservative principles seems recent and half-hearted. He doesn’t articulate traditional Republican policies so much as rail against the establishment.

The left-right debate has finally transformed itself into a battle between the high-culture elites and a billionaire who is devoted to defending the low-culture of reality TV. Viewed through that lens, is it really so surprising that he told viewers last week that he would “keep [us] in suspense” about how he’ll react to the Election Day results? Stay tuned!

It’s been riveting entertainment, but voters finally may be willing again to choose the candidate who is best prepared for the job.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs