AllPolitics - Debates '96

1984 Presidential Debates


Two presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate were set in the 1984 general election. The first debate was limited to domestic policy, the second debate focused on international policy and national defense. President Reagan was the incumbent and the polls in late September showed his approval rating at almost 54 percent. The October debates were seen as Mondale's only remaining chance to close the big gap. ( 544K QuickTime movie)

In the first debate, Mondale was viewed as the more effective speaker and Reagan was said to have appeared tired and sometimes confused. In the second debate, Mondale failed to gain further ground. Reagan successfully diffused the issue of his age during the second debate when he said, "I want you to know that 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."

Overall, the 1984 debates were seen as helping to revive Mondale's failing campaign, but not enough to change the outcome of the election, given President Reagan's large lead throughout the campaign.

P R E S I D E N T I A L  D E B A T E  # 1

Date: October 7, 1984
Location: Louisville, Kentucky
Site: Kentucky Center for the Arts
Participants: Walter Mondale (D), Ronald Reagan (R)
Moderator: Barbara Walters, ABC
Fred Barnes, Baltimore Sun
Diane Sawyer, CBS News
James Wieghart, Scripps Howard News Service
Panelist question to candidate, with a two and a half minute reply; follow-up question with one-minute reply. The same question is given to the second candidate for a reply, followed by a one-minute rebuttal by the opponent. Candidates were given four-minute closing statements.


The first debate was limited to domestic policy and largely centered on economic issues. President Reagan argued his administration's policies had produced a growing economy and Mondale's plan to raise taxes would undermine this recovery. Mondale focused on the growing annual budget deficits as a sign of the administration's failure and charged Reagan would have to increase taxes in his second term to reduce these deficits.

Mondale was prepared for the first debate by lawyer Lewis Kaden and pollster Patrick Caddell. Their strategy was to try and portray Mondale as fair, to show concern for average people, to discuss his plans for the future and show his readiness for tough choices. Mondale's themes came together in an exchange in which he hit Reagan on one of his predictable trademarks. In referring to a 1980 debate against Carter, Mondale said, "Mr. President, you said, 'There you go again.' ... You remember the last time you said that? ... You said it when President Carter said 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 you say, 'There you go again,' people will remember this, you know ... And people will remember that you signed the biggest tax increase in the history of the United States ... You've got a $260 billion deficit. You can't wish it away."

Mondale also was credited with framing the debate in terms of leadership and vision. In response to a question about leadership from Diane Sawyer, Mondale said, "There's a difference between being a quarterback and being a cheerleader, and when there's a real problem, a President must confront it." In his closing statement, Mondale said, "I believe that if we ask those questions that bear on the future, not just congratulate ourselves but challenge us to solve those problems, you'll see that we need new leadership."

Reagan articulated the basic themes of his campaign: that his economic reforms were working and the budget would be balanced by 1989, that he would always do what was morally right for the people regardless of political interests, that the Democratic Party had left people like him during the 1950's, that farmers, minorities and the disadvantaged would do better under his administration, that abortion was murder, and that he would never cut Social Security. Reagan went after those who doubted him in the first debate by saying, "I will never stand for a reduction of the Social Security benefits to the people who are now getting them ... We are today subsidizing housing for more than 10 million people, and we're going to continue along that line. We have preserved the safety net for the people with true need in this country ... You might find my words in a Democratic platform of some years ago -- I know because I was a Democrat at that time. And I left the party eventually, because I could no longer follow the turn in Democratic leadership that took us down a path ... lacking trust in the American people."

Mondale's widely acclaimed performance boosted his standing in public opinion polls and generated much needed contributions to his campaign. The following day Reagan told Reuters, "I think that an incumbent is ... going to be automatically tagged as not having done well because he didn't destroy someone." The question of whether Reagan's age was affecting his performance as president was the lead story the following day. When asked if his age had become a legitimate issue in the campaign, (at 73) Reagan said, "I'll challenge him to an arm wrestle any time."

P R E S I D E N T I A L  D E B A T E  # 2

Date: October 21, 1984
Location: Kansas City, Missouri
Site: Municipal Auditorium
Participants: Walter Mondale (D), Ronald Reagan (R)
Moderator: Edwin Newman, NBC News (retired)
Georgie Anne Geyer, Universal Press Syndicate
Marvin Kalb, NBC
Morton Kondracke, New Republic
Henry Trewhitt, Baltimore Sun
Panelist question to candidate, with two and a half minute reply and follow-up question to same candidate with a one-minute reply; candidates could rebut one another for one minute; four minutes were given for closing remarks.


In their second televised 90-minute debate, Reagan and Mondale debated international policy and national defense. Mondale hammered Reagan on issues of leadership and arms control, referencing the administration's policies in Lebanon and Central America. Reagan accused Mondale of weakness on defense issues throughout his career and of being opposed to major weapons programs.

Reagan's theme was that he was fully in command of a strengthened America. In discussing the Soviet Union, he said, "I have said on a number of occasions exactly what I believe about the Soviet Union. I retract nothing that I have said. I believe that many of the things they have done are evil in any concept of morality that we have ... and I told Mr. Gromyko that we don't like their system." In keeping with this theme, he said, "I know it'll come as a surprise to Mr. Mondale, but I am in charge. I know he has a commercial out where he's appearing on the deck of the Nimitz and watching the F-14's take off. And that's an image of strength -- except that if he had had his way when the Nimitz was being planned, he would have been deep in the water out there because there wouldn't have been any Nimitz to stand on -- he was against it."

In addition to stressing his command of the office, Reagan also turned to humor to address the question of his age. Reagan said, "I want you to know that 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."

Mondale's theme was that "a president must not only assure that we're tough, but we must also be wise and smart in the exercise of that power." In response to Reagan's charge that he had a "record of weakness" on national defense, Mondale said, "Mr. President, I accept your commitment to peace, but I want you to accept my commitment to a strong national defense." Mondale targeted the administration's policy in Lebanon as part of this theme. Mondale said, "In Lebanon, this president exercised American power, all right, but the management of it was such that our Marines were killed, we had to leave in humiliation, the Soviet Union became stronger, terrorists became emboldened. And it was because they did not think through how power should be exercised." The president "must command" and he "must lead," Mondale said.

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