News Column

Incumbents Often Stumble in First Debates

Oct. 3, 2012

By David Jackson


When President Obama steps onto the debate stage tonight in Denver, he'll seek to avoid what might be called "incumbents opening debate syndrome."

Presidents seeking re-election have often struggled in their first debates: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

Two of those wound up winning re-election anyway; two lost.

In one sense, the odds are against a sitting president in a debate; challengers automatically gain stature simply by being on the same stage as the incumbent.

Presidents also have a specific record to defend in debates, and Republican candidate Mitt Romney will no doubt point at many negative economic statistics during his confrontation with Obama.

Here's a look at past presidents in their opening debates:

Jimmy Carter, 1980. Many historians attribute Ronald Reagan's victory to success in his first and only debate with incumbent Carter.

For one thing, Reagan fired off two of the most memorable lines in debate history, one of which Romney has used: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

When Carter attacked Reagan over Social Security and Medicare, Reagan said, "There you go again."

Don't be surprised if Romney pulls that one out tonight in Denver as well.

Carter, meanwhile, endured ridicule after talking about how he discussed one crucial issue -- nuclear proliferation -- with daughter Amy.

He also had one problem Obama won't have to worry about -- only one debate against his challenger, with no chance for a comeback.

Ronald Reagan, 1984. Reagan himself suffered incumbents opening debate syndrome with a confused and meandering performance against Democrat Walter Mondale.

Even worse, critics began to question whether the 73-year-old Reagan was too old for a second term.

Unlike Carter -- and like Obama -- Reagan had a chance at a second debate. He responded with yet another famous line: "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."

Buoyed by signs of economic recovery, Reagan won in a landslide.

George H.W. Bush, 1992. The first President Bush had problems in all three of his debates, in part because he had two challengers: Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot.

If anything, Perot was more critical of Bush than Clinton. Dragged down by a recession, Bush lost to Clinton.

(Clinton, by the way, proved to be an exception to incumbent debate syndrome. In 1996, he never seemed in danger of losing to Republican challenger Bob Dole, and the debates did not change that perception.)

George W. Bush, 2004. The younger Bush also struggled in his first debate; he lost to John Kerry and was criticized for complaining about how hard the job of president is.

An apparent bulge on the back of Bush's suit jacket also led to one of the most bizarre conspiracy theories in the history of American politics: that the president was wearing a transmitter and receiving answers from Karl Rove (or somebody).

Yet Obama's predecessor recovered in the last two debates and won re-election.

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2012

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