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The recent incident where Florida Governor Rick Scott refused to make his way to the debate stage for seven minutes because his opponent, former Governor Charlie Crist, had an alleged illegal cooling fan below the debate lectern is emblematic of the political debate culture today. Rather than dissecting and analyzing the policy prescriptions put forth by the candidates during their debates, it is often the gaffes, one-liners and demeanor of the candidates that garner the most attention.

Fearful of losing their lead by making an inadvertent political gaffe or being outshined by their opponents, incumbents usually want as few debates as possible. In contrast, underdogs often call for multiple debates hoping that the incumbent in the race will falter.

When front-runners make a strategic decision not to debate, challengers often go to extreme lengths to shame their opponent into debating them. An oft-repeated tactic is for an underdog candidate to send a person in a chicken suit to events where his/her opponent appears. This almost always garners media attention.

In 1982, Republican Ray Shamie used a creative tactic which embarrassed Democrat Ted Kennedy into agreeing to debate him. Shamie hired a plane to fly around the country with a trialing banner which read: “$10,000 reward — Get Ted Kennedy to debate Ray Shamie.” The stunt mustered national media attention.

Sometimes a candidate is forced to make a pledge in a debate for political survival, which could hurt him/her in future races. In his 1990 bid for a fifth term as Arkansas Governor, Bill Clinton was neck-and-neck with his Republican opponent Sheffield Nelson. While Clinton enjoyed respectable job approval ratings, voters wondered if it was time for a change in the Governorship, and if Clinton would be a full-time Governor if re-elected. There was speculation that Clinton would seek the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1992, taking him away from the state. When Clinton was asked in a Gubernatorial debate if he promised to serve out his full term, he replied: “You bet.” After easily beating Nelson, Clinton met with Arkansas voters the next year, and asked to be released from that pledge. He eventually defied the pledge and declared his Presidential candidacy.

Similarly, during a 1994 debate with Democratic U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, Republican Mitt Romney tried to defend himself from charges that he was not a supporter of abortion rights. He said: “I have my own beliefs, and those beliefs are very dear to me. One of them is that I do not impose my beliefs on other people. Many, many years ago, I had a dear, close family relative that was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion. It is since that time that my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter. And you will not see me wavering on that.”

This quote has been used ad nosium by Republican opponents of Romney in his two Presidential runs and Romney has spent an inordinate amount of time explaining how he has since come to oppose abortion rights.

Sometimes a first-time candidate can be embarrassed when debating a seasoned political debater. Former President George W. Bush suffered this fate during a debate in his 1978 race for an open U.S. House Seat. His Democratic opponent, Kent Hance, sang from a populist song-sheet by branding Bush: “Not a real Texan.” Hance suggested that Ivy League graduates like Bush and his family caused the economic malaise in the country. Hance embarrassed Bush, and lamented: “My daddy and granddad were farmers. They didn’t have anything to do with the mess we’re in right now, and Bush’s father has been in politics his whole life.”

At the 1988 Vice Presidential debate, Democrat Lloyd Bentsen stole the show with a pre-formulated one-liner. When his Republican opponent, Dan Quayle suggested that he had more experience than John F. Kennedy had in 1960 when he was elected President, Bentsen quipped: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” This line became one of the most remembered in American political debate history.

Bentsen was not the only candidate to pull off a memorable one-liner. At the time, Boston Harbor, located in the home state of Governor Dukakis, was one of the dirtiest harbor in the U.S. After Dukakis gave a byzantine answer to a question about the bulging federal budget deficit, Bush deadpanned: “Is this the time for one-liners? That answer is about as clear as Boston Harbor.”

Memorable lines are often made off-the-cuff and do not appear scripted. In 1990, two Massachusetts Republicans, Bill Weld and Joe Malone, were elected statewide for the first time. Both brought down the house with inimitable lines, which appeared to be impromptu. During a 1990 Massachusetts Gubernatorial debate, Republican nominee Bill Weld exploited a claim by the Democratic nominee, John Silber, Ph.D., that beavers created so much wetland that preserving wetlands should not be of concern. Weld quipped: “Would you tell us doctor, what plans, if any, you have for the preservation of open spaces in Massachusetts, other than leave it to beavers?”

That same year, in the race for Treasurer and Receiver General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Democrat William Galvin, trying to show that his Republican opponent, Joe Malone, was ignorant of economic issues, asked Malone the question: “What’s a junk bond?” Without hesitation, Malone responded: “That’s what we’ll have if you’re elected.”

During a debate in the 1988 race for the Democratic Presidential nomination, U.S. Representative Richard Gephardt (D-MO) turned to U.S. Senator Al Gore (D-TN) and blasted him for moving to the right to secure Southern votes. Gephardt said: “When you started this race, you decided you needed a Southern political strategy. So you decided that you’d better move to the right on defense and [on] a lot of other issues. And lately you’ve been sounding more like Al Haig than Al Gore” (Al Haig was U.S. Secretary of State in the Reagan administration and was also a GOP Republican Presidential Candidate). Without missing a beat, Gore bested Gephardt, deadpanning: “That line sounds more like Richard Nixon than Richard Gephardt.”

Similarly, in a 2012 Presidential debate in Jacksonville, Florida, U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) was asked by host Wolf Blitzer about a proposal by one of his opponents, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), to colonize the moon. Paul mustered uproarious laughter for his response: “Well, I don’t think we should go to the moon. I think we maybe should send some politicians up there.”

Candidates spend hours preparing for their participation in political debates. Much time is spent by candidates rehearsing responses to potential questions, testing one-liners, and engaging in mock debates with staffers. Although it can certainly be argued that a candidate’s debating skills are probably not indicative of his/her ability to govern, how the candidates perform in the debates influences how undecided voters view the candidates and impacts upon their perceptions regarding their ability to govern. Again, for the American people and the media, it is often gamesmanship rather than substance that rules when determining the winner of a political debate.


Economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) said: “Modesty is a vastly overrated virtue.” Politicians have apparently taken Galbraith’s words to heart.

Through advertisements and meetings with voters, they are quick to trumpet a litany of accomplishments and virtues. Most recently, the Republican nominee for governor of Georgia, David Perdue, told Morehouse College students that his father, in his role as a superintendent of Schools, desegregated the Houston County schools. Perdue said his father “integrated I think the first — if not the first or second — county school system in Georgia, and he did it before they had to. He did it right after he got elected, and he did it because it was the right thing to do.” Perdue failed to mention the fact that the desegregation plan was instituted after the NAACP successfully challenged the “Freedom of Choice” plan instituted by the Houston County School Board, which allowed but did not mandate integration.

Perhaps the most egregious exaggeration in U.S. political history of a candidate’s background was the yarn spun by William Henry Harrison, who was elected President in 1840. Harrison was raised in a patrician family. His father was once Governor of Virginia. Yet Harrison brilliantly styled himself as “one of us.” He dressed the part of a humble down-home candidate and boasted of the fact that he had lived in a log cabin. While it was true that Harrison once lived in a log cabin, it was only briefly after retiring from government service. Contrary to popular belief at the time, he was not born in a log cabin. Yet this tactic helped Harrison get elected. In fact, one of Harrison’s supporter, Whisky distiller E.G. Booze, sold whisky in log-cabin-shaped bottles during the campaign to promote this master narrative (This is where the word booze came from.) Harrison’s ploy worked and he was elected president. However, he was not able to do much as President, as he died of pneumonia just 31 days after his inauguration.

Lyndon B. Johnson had a fascination with the Alamo. His father, Samuel Johnson Jr., wrote legislation to give control of the Alamo to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. In 1966, while visiting troops in South Korea, Johnson accurately said that there is a picture of his father inside the Alamo. He then went a step too far by mendaciously claiming that his great-great-grandfather had died in the Alamo. In actuality, the great-great-grandfather that Johnson was referring to was a real-estate trader who died at home. When confronted with this inaccuracy, Johnson creatively told Press Secretary George Christian:”You all didn’t let me finish. It was the Alamo Bar and Grill in Eagle Pass, Texas.”

Perhaps the most famous political exaggeration has been grossly exaggerated in and of itself. When someone asks the question: “Who invented the Internet?” someone will invariably quip: “Al Gore.” It is popular belief that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet. This belief however is false. In reality, Gore told Wolf Blitzer on CNN: “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” Gore was referring to his role as the lead sponsor of the 1991 High-performance Computing and Communications Act, which appropriated $600 million for high-performance computing and co-sponsored the Information Infrastructure and Technology Act of 1992. Critics chided Gore for his statement and falsely claimed that Gore had said he “invented the Internet.” U.S. House Majority leader Dick Armey (R-TX) joked: “If the vice president created the Internet then I created the Interstate.”

However, Gore has exaggerated other facts in his past. During his failed 1988 bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Gore told the Des Moines Register that in his early days as a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean, he got “a bunch of people indicted and sent to jail.” However, it was later revealed that Gore’s reporting resulted in just two municipal officials being indicted, and neither was jailed.

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also has a history of exaggerating the facts. During his two Presidential campaigns, Romney continuously claimed that as governor of Massachusetts he made the “tough choices and balanced the budget without raising taxes.” Romney was referring to the $3 billion budget shortfall he inherited when he assumed office in 2003. Romney did not mention that he raised over $500 million in “fees.” Romney also raised corporate taxes under the guise of closing corporate loopholes and truncating local aid to the state’s municipalities. This forced municipalities to cut services and/or raise property taxes on their residents.

Similarly, in 2007, Republican Presidential aspirant Mitt Romney told a voter: “I purchased a gun when I was a young man. I’ve been a hunter pretty much all my life.” It was later revealed that Romney had only hunted twice in his life. Romney later said: “I’m not a big-game hunter. I’ve made that very clear. I’ve always been a rodent and rabbit hunter. Small varmints, if you will.”

Candidates with military experience often brandish this experience on the campaign trail, and occasionally get themselves into trouble. During his 2008 bid for an open U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut, it was revealed that the Democratic nominee Richard Blumenthal had on two occasions claimed he served as a Marine “in Vietnam.” Blumenthal had in fact served in the Marines during the Vietnam era, but never served in Vietnam. He apologized for the remarks and despite this exaggeration was elected to the Senate by twelve points.

An amusing exaggeration came from Mark Roosevelt, the Democratic nominee for Massachusetts Governor in 1994. In an interview with the Boston Globe, he made the following comment about his tenure in the Massachusetts State Legislature: “A record of accomplishment probably unsurpassed by any legislator in the 20th century in Massachusetts.” Roosevelt later retracted the comment, stating: “I can be sanctimonious.” Roosevelt lost the Gubernatorial election, garnering less than 30 percent of the vote.

Politics is not the profession for the modest. To a great extent a politician has to be a salesperson. He/she must master the art of bragging about himself over and over again without overdoing it, appearing supercilious.

It takes a certain personality type to be ready, willing, and able to repeatedly tell voters of his/her stellar attributes. As the aforementioned cases reveal, politicians sometimes go a step too far and exaggerate what they have accomplished, sometimes losing all credibility. Robert Strauss, who served as chairman of the Democratic Party, captured this phenomenon of political exaggeration best when he said: “Every politician wants every voter to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself.”


Contrary to “Progressive Belief,” Obama Has Not Departed From his Campaign Rhetoric

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There is disenchantment on the left with Barack Obama. Many progressives agree with sentiment recently expressed by Professor Cornell West, a professor at the Union Theological Seminary, who recently told Salon Magazine: “He posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street Presidency, a drone Presidency.” Despite […]

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Rand Paul’s Potential ‘Brian Schweitzer Problem’

September 9, 2014

In referring to the reasons for the September 11 hijackings, Republican U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas) stated in a 2007 South Carolina Republican presidential debate “They attack us because we’ve been over there.” He was referring to the nation’s interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East. Paul later pointed out that by meddling in the […]

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In the Political Arena an Underdog Challenger Must Be Creative to Force an Incumbent to a Debate

August 5, 2014

In every election cycle, voters witness the spectacle of an underdog candidate challenging an incumbent elected official to participate in a series of debates. This is usually a starting bid, with the underdog hoping the incumbent will engage in at least one debate. A debate is an opportunity for a challenger to share the same […]

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When a Political Gaffe Torpedoes a Political Candidate

July 15, 2014

With another election season upon us, it is close to certainty that we will see political candidates make major gaffes, including answering a question honestly, when political correctness would be the prudent tactic. Candidates sometimes misspeak, like in 1968 when Democratic Presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey told Playboy magazine: “No sane person in the country likes […]

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Eric Cantor Is Not the First National Political Figure to Lose His Congressional Seat

June 17, 2014

No matter what else he accomplishes in life, David Brat’s obituary may well read “Giant Killer” or something to that effect. The fact that the formerly obscure Randolph-Macon College Economics Professor defeated U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) in his bid for renomination to his congressional seat sent shockwaves through the body politic. The […]

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What’s in a Name? In Politics, Perhaps a Lot More Than One Might Think

May 6, 2014

The old saying goes “What’s in a name?” Actually, names can be very important in the political arena and have changed the course of American political history. In 1946, after entering a race for an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, future President John F. Kennedy used a creative tactic to muster an […]

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Will the Carpetbagger Card be Effective Against Scott Brown in the New Hampshire U.S. Senate Race?

April 25, 2014

Former U.S. Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) has packed his truck and moved full-time to his former vacation home in Rye, New Hampshire. He is running for the Republican nomination to challenge U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) in November. With Brown the putative favorite for the nomination, the general election will likely be a donnybrook. This […]

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Two Potential 2016 GOP Presidential Candidates Face Re-Election Hurdles

April 25, 2014

With the U.S. Congress suffering from single-digit job approval ratings, governors are likely to be in vogue as potential presidential candidates in 2016. Two swing state governors, John Kasich from Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, are believed to be seriously considering seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Both men are currently seeking re-election […]

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