Marc Ambinder

Feeling your pain

How Bill Clinton really won the second debate in 1992

Marc Ambinder

The most famous moment from the second presidential debate in 1992, the moment that arguably cinched the deal for Bill Clinton, was not, as many pundits today would have it, when George H.W. Bush was caught looking at his watch.

It was how both candidates responded to one question: "How has the national debt affected each of your lives, and if it hasn't, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what's ailing them?"

Bush started his answer: "I think the national debt affects everybody. Obviously, it has a lot to do with interest rates."  

The  questioner interrupted: "You, on a personal basis?" Moderator Carole Simpson interjected: "You, personally?"  

Bush began to try to answer: "Well, I love my grandchildren..."  The woman: "How?"

Bush: "Well, I love my grandchildren and I wanted to think that they're going to be able to afford an education. I think that ... "

And then Bush actually asked the questioner whether she was saying that rich people aren't affected by the debt. "Help me with the question and I'll try to answer," he said. 

The woman explained that she had friends who had trouble paying their mortgages or car payments. "How can you help us if you don't know what we're feeling."

Simpson: "I think she means more the recession."

Bush gave a long, winding answer, and then, through gritted teeth, thanked the woman "for clarifying for me."

...

Then Bill Clinton got up. He walked a few feet, and asked her, to set the mood, to effectively restate the fact that she had been hurt by the recession. "How has it affected you again? You know people who lost their homes?"

"Uh huh," the woman said.

Then...

"I've been governor of a small state for 12 years. I'll tell you how it's affected me. Every year, Congress and the president sign laws that make us do more things and give us less money to do it. I see middle-class people whose services have gone down while the wealthy has gotten tax cuts. When people lose their jobs, there is a good chance i know them by their name. If the factory closes, I know the people who ran it."

Clinton continued his quintessential "I feel your pain" answer.  At one point, the camera cut  to Bush, his mouth open in an incredulous smirk. 

Who is better equipped to handle a question like that today?

Neither candidate is known for their empathy, but Obama does much better in these situations than Mitt Romney does. 

In some ways, looking back at the 1992 question, Simpson and the question-asker were not predisposed toward Bush to begin with, but Romney has to know that the same factor might tackle him, and he can't complain about it. He has to be ready with something he has so far not produced.

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