The All-Time Top 10 Debate Moments on Foreign Policy

From Soviet gaffes to talking snowmen, the highlights from presidential elections past.

Anthony Jacobs/Getty Images
Anthony Jacobs/Getty Images

If the Romney and Obama campaigns are to be believed, Wednesday’s presidential debate will pit an inexperienced, bumbling, and hopelessly overmatched challenger who isn’t expecting to turn in a game-changing performance against a mediocre, zinger-less, long-winded, and grossly unprepared incumbent who might very well tumble off the stage. (The contest looks entirely different if the campaigns are talking about the other guy; Obama campaign press secretary Jen Psaki has compared Romney the debater to an "Olympic decathlete" who has prepared more than "any presidential candidate in modern history," while Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski has labeled Obama a "world-class debater who laid waste to Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and John McCain.")

The candidates and their supporters, of course, are engaging in the increasingly absurd election ritual of managing debate expectations. But this week’s debate — the first of the general election — is unlikely to be either a comedy of errors or an epic clash of the titans. Instead, it will probably produce a few critical exchanges that could sway the polls, define the candidates (for better or worse), or, at the very least, be remembered for years to come. Although international affairs won’t be explicitly discussed until the vice-presidential debate and final two presidential debates later this month, it’s worth looking back at the most memorable foreign-policy moments of elections past as we prepare for Wednesday’s face-off. Here are 10 of the best:

1960: Kennedy channels Lincoln

Everyone has heard about the contrast between Richard Nixon’s brow sweat and stubble and John F. Kennedy’s sunny demeanor during the first televised presidential debate in U.S. history, but less famous is the unexpected offensive Kennedy waged against Nixon (and the Republican vice president’s foreign-policy advantage) during his opening statement. The Democratic candidate placed his domestic policy — the assigned topic for the debate — in the context of the Cold War. "In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln said the question was whether this nation could exist half-slave or half-free," Kennedy noted. "In the election of 1960, and with the world around us, the question is whether the world will exist half-slave or half-free.… I think it will depend in great measure upon what we do here in the United States, on the kind of society that we build, on the kind of strength that we maintain."

1976: Ford denies Soviet domination

When the presidential debates returned after a 16-year hiatus, Gerald Ford, who was trailing Jimmy Carter in the polls, rendered moderator Max Frankel speechless when he declared, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." (Be sure to check out Frankel’s flustered follow-up.) Faced with headlines like "The Blooper Heard Round the World" and "Jerry Ford Drops a Brick," the Republican president issued clarification after clarification in the days after the debate, but to no avail. "I felt very strongly that regardless of the number of Soviet armored divisions in Poland, the Russians would never dominate the Polish spirit," Ford later recalled. "That’s what I should have said. I simply left out the fact that, at that time in 1976, the Russians had about 10 to 15 divisions in Poland."

1976: Dole condemns "Democrat wars"

That same year, Republican vice-presidential candidate Bob Dole raised eyebrows by slamming World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War as "Democrat wars" during a debate with Walter Mondale. "If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it’d be about 1.6 million Americans — enough to fill the city of Detroit," he asserted. The remark didn’t sit well with Mondale, who retorted that "Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight," and it haunted Dole for the remainder of the campaign and even during his 1996 presidential run. "Bob Dole came across as an ass," columnist Debra Saunders recalled that year.

1980: Carter asks Amy

During his one and only debate with Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter gave a surprising shout-out to his 13-year-old daughter during a discussion about how to strike a nuclear arms control deal with the Soviet Union. "I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was," he told the audience. "She said she thought nuclear weaponry and the control of nuclear arms." The Republicans had a field day with the comment. If Amy Carter were really concerned about nuclear proliferation, vice-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush noted during a campaign stop, "she ought to vote for Ronald Reagan." Reagan himself got in on the fun at a rally in Wisconsin, referencing his own kids, who were in their 20s at the time. "I remember when Patti and Ron were little tiny kids, we used to talk about nuclear power," he joked before a roaring crowd.

1984: Reagan renounces ageism

During a debate with Walter Mondale, the 73-year-old President Reagan deftly dodged criticism of his advanced age (he was already the oldest president in history), using humor to turn the tables on his Democratic challenger, who was 17 years his junior. When asked whether he would be able to endure sleepless nights during another Cuban missile crisis, Reagan responded, "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 later joked that while he appears to be smiling in the clip, "if you come in close, you’ll see some tears coming down because I knew he had gotten me there. That was really the end of my campaign that night, I think."

1984: Bush gets pedantic

The most heated exchange in the vice-presidential debate between Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Geraldine Ferraro came when Ferraro, the first female vice-presidential candidate for a major U.S. political party, compared the Iranian hostage crisis to the bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon. "Let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon," Bush began, drawing a fiery rebuttal. "I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy," Ferraro declared. "I’ve been a member of Congress for six years." The testy exchange dominated the analysis of the debate the next day. "Did he patronize her?" the Associated Press asked. "That’s the debate about the debate that America may be chewing on for as long as women candidates for national office remain a rarity."

1992: Perot hears "giant sucking sound"

In a debate with President George H.W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton, independent presidential candidate Ross Perot found a colorful way to express his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, warning that there would be a "giant sucking sound going south" if companies could save money by moving factories south of the border. The line became an instant catchphrase. "You have to feel sorry for the Mexicans: they are hearing ‘the giant sucking sound’ in stereo these days — from China in one ear and India in the other," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote more than a decade later.

2004: Bush loses it

During a debate in September 2004, George W. Bush was widely mocked for reminding Democratic challenger John Kerry that he "forgot Poland" when criticizing the president for recruiting so few countries to join his coalition in Iraq. But Bush went ballistic when Kerry made a similar point in another debate several days later. "Tell Tony Blair we’re going alone," Bush fumed. "Tell Silvio Berlusconi we’re going alone. Tell Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland we’re going alone. We’ve got 30 countries there. It denigrates an alliance to say we’re going alone, to discount their sacrifices."

2007: A snowman talks

Debates have increased in number and have grown ever more elaborate since 2007, and perhaps nothing captured that trend better than a question on global warming in a CNN/YouTube debate during the Democratic primary. The network directed the candidates’ attention to a screen where an animated snowman addressed the contestants in a high-pitched voice. "I’ve been growing concerned that global warming, the single most important issue to the snowmen of this country, is being neglected," the snowman observed. "As president, what will you do to ensure that my son will live a full and happy life?" Congressman Dennis Kucinich eagerly fielded the question, but the move invited a fierce backlash from pundits ("Dumb and Dumber Debates," one column complained). Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was particularly miffed. "I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman," he argued.

2008: Clinton mangles Medvedev

During a Democratic primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, moderator Tim Russert asked Clinton about the upcoming election in Russia. Clinton noted that Putin was grooming a "handpicked successor" with no real power and that the United States needed to toughen its policy toward Russia. But when Russert pressed her for the name of that successor, she stumbled. "Medvedeva," she blurted out, after a couple of false starts. "Whatever." Those who claimed that the media favored Obama quickly pointed to the episode as yet one more example of media bias.

 Twitter: @UriLF

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