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Briefing and Opinion
October 15, 2004

Simplify
1984 Reagan-Mondale Presidential Debates

A foreign policy debate asks citizens to make sense of complicated trends and events, sophisticated weapons technology, and internal politics in faraway lands. Many of us seek shortcuts to understanding. President Reagan and Roosevelt were masters at simplifying complex questions into everyday images, and the public appreciated the premasticated information. Conversely, many had rejected President Carter's tendency to unnecessarily complicate simple matters.

Against this backdrop, Mondale's first sentence, "I believe that the question oversimplifies the difficulties of what we must do in Central America," was almost suicidal. He continued in the follow-up, "It's much more complex." But Reagan quickly saved the audience from considering Mondale's three-pronged approach by saying simply that, "I thought for a moment that instead of a debate I was going to find Mr. Mondale in complete agreement with what we're doing, because the plan that he has outlined is the one we've been following for quite some time."

The nature of the policy and its merits were thus culled from the debate.

Source: RHETORICAL STUDIES OF NATIONAL POLITICAL DEBATES 1960-1992, edited by Robert V. Friedenberg of Miami University (of Ohio), Chapter 5, 1984 Reagan-Mondale Presidential Debates by Craig Allen Smith and Kathy B. Smith
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Prepare for the predictable
1984 Reagan-Mondale Presidential Debates

Mondale's themes came together in a dramatic exchange when he pounded on one of Reagan's predictable remarks.
Mr. Mondale: Now, Mr. President, you said, "There you go again," right?
The President: Yes.
Mr. Mondale: you remember the last time you said that?
The President: Mm-hmmm [shuffling papers and looking down.]

By anticipating Reagan's predictable behavior, by seizing the moment with relish, and by forcing Reagan to answer him, Mondale had taken center stage away from Reagan who looked like a schoolboy who had forgotten his homework. Although Reagan admitted only that he remembered having said, "There you go again" in the Carter debate, Mondale exploited the admission by conceptualizing it:

Mr. Mondale: You said it when President Carter said that you were going to cut Medicare, and you said, "Oh, no, there you go again, Mr. President." And what did you do right after the election? You went out and tried to cut $20 billion out of Medicare. And so, when I - when you say, "There you go again" -- people remember this, you know.

In fact, people remembered nothing of the sort until Mondale constructed the argument.

Source: RHETORICAL STUDIES OF NATIONAL POLITICAL DEBATES 1960-1992, edited by Robert V. Friedenberg of Miami University (of Ohio), Chapter 5, 1984 Reagan-Mondale Presidential Debates by Craig Allen Smith and Kathy B. Smith
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Emphasize accomplishments
1984 Bush-Ferraro Vice-Presidential Debate

One of the strategies important to the incumbency style is emphasizing accomplishment. Incumbents who wish to be reelected must be able to demonstrate tangible achievements as a result of their leadership. When accomplishments are not questioned, the strategy is uncomplicated and straightforward. Complexity occurs if there have been few accomplishments or if major problems overshadow or appear to overshadow positive contributions.

When this happens, the strategy becomes more convoluted. Incumbents must either deny that the problem exists, suggest that it is of little importance, or blame someone else -- scapegoat. At various times in the debate the vice president used each of the three tactics and even added another: he ignored examples that were given and substituted others.

Source: RHETORICAL STUDIES OF NATIONAL POLITICAL DEBATES 1960-1992, edited by Robert V. Friedenberg of Miami University (of Ohio), Chapter 6, 1984 Bush-Ferraro Vice-Presidential Debate by Judith S. Trent