J.P. Gairhan is a sophomore political science major in the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences from Cabot, Arkansas. He is involved intimately with the Associated Student Government, The Traveler, the Distinguished Lecture Committee, and Phi Delta Theta. Upon graduation he hopes to enroll in Officer Candidate School and serve in the U.S. military.
The 1992 Presidential election featured the most prominent third party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt’s famous Bull Moose bid in 1912. President George H.W. Bush, Governor Bill Clinton, and businessman H. Ross Perot were the three participants in the debate held at the University of Richmond. For the first time ever in election history, the debate was a town-hall-style event completely filled with undecided voters from the central Virginia area.
The first question asked, and a major theme of the debate, involved trade and the state of the American economy. The beginning of the 1990s featured a recession that plagued the ending of the elder Bush’s presidency. Discontent with the state of partisan politics in the country, large swaths of voters supported Perot’s populist and anti-interest campaign. Throughout the debate Perot almost resembles a folksy grandfather, unafraid to be himself and add his own flare to the conversation. He at one point guesses that an “extraterrestrial” must be responsible for a budgeting shortfall since neither the Democrats nor Republicans want to take responsibility for the issues. President Bush’s goal in the debate seemed to be directed at presenting himself as the reliable adult in the room. Perot’s political inexperience and Clinton’s possible character issues are mentioned at multiple points by the sitting president. He knows that Clinton is the real threat and attempts to use his inconsistency on certain issues and past involvement against the Vietnam War as attacks on the Governor’s character. In another attempt at humor in the debate, President Bush says that the job is to run for the White House and not the Waffle House.
At one point, the moderator, Carole Simpson, openly asks the audience if they are satisfied with how the campaigns are being run. This is definitely a pivot away from the style and structure of past debates. The atmosphere is relaxed and many of the questioners ask the questions without having to read them.
Unlike debates today, there was no applause in the debate, making the questions seem more serious and the moment more somber. There was also little direct interaction between the candidates, and little bickering over what any one candidate had said to the other. Carole Simpson did not have to work as hard to control the debate as moderators do today.
The most memorable moments of the debate are likely reasons as to why Governor Clinton wound up winning the election. Near the end of the debate, President Bush is caught on camera glancing at his watch while Perot answered a question from the audience. At times the perception that Bush was out of touch with the needs of the American people prevailed as a negative aspect of the President and weighed down his candidacy. He seemed annoyed to have to stand up on stage with the likes of Perot and Clinton. He was arguably the most prepared President in American history and was a political giant of his time even without the Oval Office on his resume. Clinton might have won the election in a single interaction with a female voter asking about how the deficit personally affected each candidate. Perot and Bush were unable to connect and answer the question directly. Governor Clinton leaves his stool and nearly walks up to the voter and tells here that those struggling in the economy have personally impacted him in a number of ways. He voiced the frustrations that many in the country were beginning to feel about President Bush and the Republicans after twelve consecutive years of White House Control.
Without knowing the winner, I would say President Clinton won the debate. He seemed cautious and avoided any substantive attack on what his governing would be like. His approaching the questioner answer may have been the golden point.