2016 Sees a Coarser, Harsher Campaign

Microphone on a stage

Iowa had proved disastrous for Ronald Reagan.

The former California governor entered the 1980 presidential primary season as the Republican frontrunner, but his campaign downplayed the importance of the Iowa caucuses, preferring to run a more national campaign. Now, his leading opponent, former CIA Director George H. W. Bush, had scored a major victory in the farming state and was claiming the momentum—or, as Bush famously called it, “The Big Mo”—going into New Hampshire.

Reagan’s campaign pivoted fast, recalls Paul A. Russo, a former campaign official who would later serve in several positions in the Reagan Administration, including Special Assistant to the President for Political Affairs. He now teaches a course in the modern U.S. Presidency for the Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies (SCS).

“I was shipped up to New Hampshire and we ran, literally, a person-to-person campaign, going to every nook and cranny of the state,” Russo said.

What happened days later is part of political lore, and it would yield a distinctive Reagan soundbite that would become even more memorable than Bush’s “Big Mo” comment.

A Coarser Society

Russo and Mike McCurry, former press secretary for Democrat Bill Clinton and co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, were asked to compare the tenor and dynamics of the 2016 presidential campaign with the ones they experienced in the 1980s and 1990s. McCurry also has a Georgetown connection, having graduated from the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program before earning a divinity degree at Wesley Theological Seminary, where he now teaches.

Though McCurry and Russo hail from opposing parties, they had similar thoughts on what has become one of the most bitter campaigns in recent memory.

“The big difference, I think, is that the country is more divided and political than in the 1990s, when I worked for Bill Clinton,” said McCurry, who made a point to include 1998, the year the U.S. House of Representatives impeached the president, in that comparison.

“The whole vocabulary, the tone of political debate, needs some real improvement,” he said.

Russo agreed.

“There’s a coarseness that has crept into our society,” he said. “And our campaigns reflect that.”

The political atmosphere also reflects the deep-seated anxiety many Americans feel as the nation’s economy moves from a 20th century manufacturing, goods-and-services model to a new paradigm that places a premium on information gathering and exchange, Russo said.

“We’re going through a real—I believe, significant—change from the industrial era to the high-tech, digital, information era, and we’ve been pulled both ways by that,” Russo said.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the media, which has morphed from a handful of “must-see” networks and newspapers into a blizzard of competing online voices. Now, the national media’s role in setting the agenda—to be the “referee,” as McCurry put it—has diminished, with citizens tending to gravitate to those sources that support their views.

“I think the great threat to democracy is that we will stop listening to people who disagree with us and camp out with people who agree with our point of view,” McCurry said.

One bright spot, McCurry and Russo agreed, is the young people of the Millennial generation, many of whom are both idealistic and practical.

“They tend to be much more progressive and far less partisan,” McCurry said, “and far more interested in ideas that will make sense and work over time.”

One Night in New Hampshire

The 1980 primaries were just as contentious as those today, if perhaps less brutal. After winning in Iowa, Bush was eager to cast the New Hampshire primary as a two-man race. When the Nashua Telegraph invited Bush and Reagan to a one-on-one debate, the candidates accepted, but one of the other contenders, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, objected to being excluded and appealed to the Federal Election Commission, which said the two-person debate would amount to an illegal campaign contribution to the Reagan and Bush campaigns. So Reagan offered to put up a few thousand dollars to sponsor the debate.

When Reagan came onstage at the packed and overheated high school auditorium where the debate was to take place, Dole and three other GOP candidates walked in behind him. He said they should be allowed to participate: an editor at the paper responded by telling the tech crew to turn off his microphone.

Reagan stood up and took the microphone. “Is this on?” he asked.

And then—visibly angry but in control—he said: “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green.”

He got the name wrong. It was actually Mr. Breen, but it didn’t matter. The crowd erupted in thunderous cheers, and even the other candidates (all, that is, except Bush) applauded.

“Reagan grabbed that mike and the crowd went wild,” Russo recalled. “We knew instantly we won that night, and it was downhill to the nomination.”

And the debate itself?

“I couldn’t tell you anything that happened in the debate.”

The Georgetown University Liberal Studies degree programs include a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies, Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, and a Doctor of Liberal Studies. These programs draw from various subject areas to provide students with the skills they need to achieve their personal and professional goals.

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