Top 8 Debate Zingers

Sophie Quinton

Almost all presidential and vice presidential debates include good lines. But not every debate includes a real zinger: a rejoinder that nails the opponent and sticks in viewers’ minds for weeks to come. Here are eight of National Journal’s favorites.

1. “You are no Jack Kennedy.” Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, cut a dour figure onstage at the 1988 vice presidential debate in Omaha. But that evening he also delivered one of the best put-downs in political debate history, in response to a claim by Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana that “I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.” Speaking slowly and deliberately, Bentsen replied, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.” The audience burst into applause. “That was really uncalled for, senator,” Quayle said, with a stony face. “You’re the one who was making the comparison, senator,” Bentsen replied.

2. “There you go again.” Here’s a line so well-received that current GOP nominee Mitt Romney has said he’d like to use it against President Obama. It landed at the only televised debate between Ronald Reagan and President Carter. “Governor Reagan, as a matter of fact, began his political career campaigning around this nation against Medicare,” Carter said; Reagan laughed and shook his head. Carter wrapped up his pitch for a program of national health insurance, and it was Reagan’s turn to reply. “Governor. There you go again,” Reagan said, and explained that he’d merely been a proponent of a different piece of legislation. It was such a good line that Reagan reprised it in his debate with former Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984.

3. “Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man.” A question over President Nixon’s pardon led to a rather dark exchange between Sens. Bob Dole and Walter Mondale during the first-ever vice presidential debate, held in Houston in 1976. Dole said he wouldn’t be addressing Nixon’s pardon because “it’s not a very good issue”—as done and dusted as the wars in Vietnam, Korea, and the two World Wars, which he characterized as “all Democrat wars.” Mondale responded, “Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight.” Dole’s odd allegation—and Mondale’s pithy response—became the most remembered moment of the debate.

4. If Bush keeps it up, he's going to be the Joe Isuzu of American politics. Both Vice President George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis managed to get in a few zingers during the 1988 presidential debate in Winston-Salem, N.C. Dukakis claimed Bush couldn’t be serious about bringing down the deficit, because the Republican wanted both more defense spending and lower taxes. “If he keeps this up he's going to be the Joe Isuzu of American politics,” Dukakis said, referring to an '80s car salesman famous for his over-the-top TV ads. “Is this the time to unleash our one-liner? That answer was about as clear as Boston Harbor,” Bush retorted.

5. “I’m going to try to help you do that, Joe.” Dick Cheney didn’t miss a beat when then-Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman brought up Cheney’s private-sector career during the 2000 vice presidential debate at Kentucky’s Centre College. “I'm pleased to see, Dick, from the newspapers that you're better off than you were eight years ago, too,” Lieberman said. “I can tell you, Joe, the government had absolutely nothing to do with it,” Cheney responded, to laughter. Missing the chance to jab Cheney over his Halliburton connections, Lieberman said, “I can see my wife and I think she's thinking, ‘I wish he would go out into the private sector.' ” Cheney dryly remarked, “I’m going to try to help you do that, Joe”—a zinger that ended the exchange.

6. “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” When President Reagan ran for reelection in 1984, he was already the oldest president in American history—a fact raised during a presidential debate on national-security issues. Reagan told Baltimore Sun reporter Hank Trewhitt, a panelist, that there was no doubt in his mind he had the capacity to be commander in chief. “Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt, and 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.”

7. “Who am I? Why am I here?” Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992, retired vice admiral James Stockdale, was a Vietnam war hero who joined Perot on the independent ticket essentially as a personal favor. At the 1992 vice presidential debate, Stockdale’s opening statement was almost painfully honest: “Who am I? Why am I here?” he asked. “I’m not a politician, everybody knows that.” The Medal of Honor recipient’s oddball opening line drew laughs, but it also brought front-and-center the question of what he was doing on the vice presidential ticket.

8. “Where’s the beef?” Presidential and vice presidential debates aren’t the only places where a candidate can work in a zinger: The 1984 Democratic debate will forever be remembered for one pop-culture reference, landed by former Vice President Walter Mondale. After Sen. Gary Hart wrapped up touting a long list of his new ideas, Mondale responded, “When I hear your new ideas, I’m reminded of that ad: Where’s the beef?” Fresh in many minds at the time was fast-food chain Wendy’s series of commercials in which an elderly woman poses that question when she is presented with a burger that’s all bun.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the decade in which the Joe Isuzu car advertisements ran. They ran in the 1980s.

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry wins the award for arguably the worst stumble in the 52-year history of presidential debates, by declaring, “Oops,” and mangling his own platform in a Republican primary debate last year. Unquestionably, he was the first candidate to ever utter the word “Oops.” But almost as unquestionably, his failure to remember the name of the third federal department he pledged to eliminate – Energy – was the worst self-inflicted wound since the first modern-era debate between Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John Kennedy on Sept. 26, 1960.

PHOTO: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

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Other candidates have blundered in ways ranging from bad makeup (Nixon against Kennedy on Sept. 26, 1960), loud sighing (Al Gore against George W. Bush on Oct. 11, 2000), to looking at a watch (George H.W. Bush against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot on Oct. 15, 1992).

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Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis blundered by failing to show what most viewers considered appropriate passion when the first question in his Oct. 13, 1988, debate with George H.W. Bush involved his reaction to a scenario in which “Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered.” An emotionless Dukakis responded calmly with talk of studies showing the death penalty is no deterrent to violent crime.

PHOTO: AP Photo/Reed Saxon

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President Gerald Ford in his battle with Jimmy Carter had closed the gap when the two met in San Francisco for their Oct. 6, 1976, debate. But all that momentum ended in the time it took The New York Times’s Max Frankel to ask the president about growing Soviet influence in Europe. Ford responded that this dominance “just isn’t true,” adding, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.” He never recovered.


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Barack Obama alienated many voters – particularly women – when he seemed to be condescending to Hillary Rodham Clinton on Jan. 5, 2008. When Clinton was responding to a question about whether she was as personally appealing as Obama, he turned to her and said, “You’re likable enough.” Days later, she scored a major upset and beat him in the New Hampshire primary.

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In this Oct. 15, 1992, file photo President George H.W. Bush looks at his watch during the 1992 presidential campaign debate with other candidates, Independent Ross Perot, top, and Democrat Bill Clinton, not shown, at the University of Richmond, Va. They spend hours mastering policy. Learning to lean on the podium just so. Perfecting the best way to label their opponents as liars without whining. But presidential candidates and their running mates often find that campaign debates turn on unplanned zingers, gaffes or gestures that speak volumes. Debate wins and losses often are scored based on the overall impressions that candidates leave with voters. In the history books, though, small debate moments often end up telling the broader story.  

PHOTO: AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, File

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Perhaps the self-inflicted wound that came closest to Perry’s stumble was retired Adm. James Stockdale’s performance in the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 13, 1992. Stockdale was a widely admired hero of the Vietnam War but was a political novice when he was unexpectedly tapped by Ross Perot to be his running mate. Then Perot forgot to inform Stockdale that he had accepted an invitation for Stockdale to participate in the debate. Stockdale had only 12 days to prepare to go against veteran politicians Al Gore and Dan Quayle. Stockdale’s opening words were “Who am I? Why am I here?” He looked simply confused and gave comedians and Saturday Night Live ample material to lampoon him.

PHOTO: AP Photo/Greg Gibson

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