The Washington Post

Debate catch-phrases over the years: ‘Horses and bayonets’ is no ‘Jack Kennedy’

Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle after their 1988 vice presidential debate in Omaha. (Ron Edmonds/AP)

How will the 2012 debates rate in the campaign history books? Lots of political drama — but not a single breakout one-liner.

Sure, Internet wags had fun with Mitt Romney’s Big Bird and “binders of women” comments, but neither will likely have the staying power of Lloyd Bentsen’s devastating riposte to Dan Quayle in 1988: “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”

With the millions and millions spent on presidential campaigns, you’d think the candidates would be able to deliver a zinger that perfectly captures the moment — but it’s harder than it looks.

“One characteristic of a memorable line is that it’s simple,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political rhetoric at the University of Pennsylvania.

The president’s “horses and bayonets” jab may have delighted the Democratic base, but the line probably won’t translate into pop culture — too much context required. And rehearsed quips that work in a stump speech are harder to drop into a debate: Obama’s “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back” didn’t work because he bungled the delivery.

President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan before their Cleveland debate in October 1980. (AP)

Other long-lasting quotes: Ronald Reagan brushed aside criticism from Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale with his affable “There you go again” — which became the catch phrase of the 1980 election. Mondale scored his own place in history by nailing Gary Hart’s “new ideas” with a borrowed Wendy’s slogan: “Where’s the beef?

But there’s nothing memorable from this month’s debates, said Karlyn Campbell, professor of political communication at the University of Minnesota. Great lines have some link to voters’ personal experiences and can translate into their own lives. “That’s why ‘binders of women’ isn’t going to stick around. It’s just an awkward phrase.”

Although debates now have an afterlife on YouTube, there’s only a handful of great moments. . . and when you stop and think about it, it’s not really surprising, says Campbell: “Guys like this are not great performers.”

Watch the “You’re no Jack Kennedy” exchange at the Bentsen-Quayle debate:

Also in The Reliable Source:

Hey, isn’t that . . . ?: Ferran Adria, Kathleen Turner

GQ makes over Capitol Hill staffers: Tighter pants, snazzier socks abound

George McGovern’s last birthday party

Which stars hang out with the Obamas? Another look at the White House visitors log



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