There’s an unwritten rule among political reporters and pundits: When talking about town hall-style debates, you must use the 1992 debate in Richmond between Bill Clinton and incumbent President George H. W. Bush as an example of the importance of “connecting” with the audience. The consensus is that Clinton did a better job of relating to and empathizing with the audience; that the delivery of his responses was more effective than Bush’s. That’s almost certainly true.
But I’ve always thought the key lesson from that debate is something nobody ever mentions. Here’s the exchange everyone always points to:
The audience member asks Bush how the “national debt” has effected him personally. Bush rather obviously doesn’t understand what she means. He talks about interest rates and abstractions. Then it’s Clinton’s turn, and he recognizes that when the questioner asked about the “national debt,” she really meant the poor economy.* So he talked about factories closing, people losing jobs and unable to afford health care, declining wages, people “working harder for less money than they were ten years ago,” and so on.
Clinton’s answer was better not just because it was stylistically better, but because he addressed voters’ real concerns rather than the precise word the questioner used. People don’t really care about deficits. They think they do, because the political and media elite can’t stop obsessing over deficits, so it’s a word voters know. But when they use it, they’re using it as a proxy for other things. That’s the lesson politicians and the media should’ve learned from the 1992 debate, if they didn’t already know it. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. Even Clinton’s fellow Democrats -- and probably Clinton himself at this point -- see polls showing public concern about deficits and conclude that they have to focus on deficits. But it’s the economy people are worried about, and their own financial condition. Help improve that, and voters’ concerns about deficits will disappear, even if deficits continue. Conversely, you could balance the budget next year and nobody would be happy if their economic condition didn’t improve. (Which wouldn’t happen, given what would be necessary to balance the budget that quickly.)
* As Bush was fumbling his way through an answer, debate moderator Carole Simpson interjected “I think she means more the recession, the economic problems the country faces today rather than the deficit.” Simpson deserves credit for that. Sadly, it’s hard to imagine a debate moderator like Jim Lehrer or Candy Crowley doing something like that today; if anything, they’d be more likely to “translate” an audience question about the economy into something about deficit reduction. We’ll never know for certain whether Clinton would’ve recognized the questioner’s intent without Simpson’s clarification, but I think it’s a pretty safe bet he would have.