NEW YORK -- It’s been 20 years since President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot fielded a question in the 1992 presidential town hall debate from a woman who asked how the U.S. debt affected them.
“How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives?” she asked. “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?”
The exchange that followed was both a memorable moment in a presidential debate, as well as a testament to how the town hall format could highlight a candidate’s ability -- or lack thereof -- to connect with the average American voter. Perot and Bush stumbled through their answers -- Perot said the debt caused him to leave his business and enter politics, while Bush said he wasn’t sure he understood the question before turning defensive, arguing that you don’t have to be personally hit by a recession to know what it’s like. Then Clinton offered his response. He walked right up to the edge of the stage and engaged in a conversation with the woman who asked the question.
CLINTON: Tell me how it's affected you again.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: Um --
CLINTON: You know people who've lost their jobs and lost their homes?
AUDIENCE QUESTION: Well, yeah, uh-huh.
CLINTON: Well, 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 gives us less money to do it with. I see people in my state, middle-class people -- their taxes have gone up in Washington and their services have gone down while the wealthy have gotten tax cuts.
I have seen what's happened in this last four years when -- in my state, when people lose their jobs there's a good chance I'll know them by their names. When a factory closes, I know the people who ran it. When the businesses go bankrupt, I know them.
And I've been out here for 13 months meeting in meetings just like this ever since October, with people like you all over America, people that have lost their jobs, lost their livelihood, lost their health insurance.
What I want you to understand is the national debt is not the only cause of that. It is because America has not invested in its people. It is because we have not grown. It is because we've had 12 years of trickle-down economics. We've gone from first to twelfth in the world in wages. We've had four years where we've produced no private-sector jobs. Most people are working harder for less money than they were making 10 years ago.
It is because we are in the grip of a failed economic theory. And this decision you're about to make better be about what kind of economic theory you want, not just people saying I'm going to go fix it but what are we going to do? I think we have to do is invest in American jobs, American education, control American health care costs and bring the American people together again.
David Mercer, the former deputy finance chair of the Democratic National Committee who worked on the 1992 Clinton/Gore campaign, spoke with The Huffington Post about why Clinton’s response stood out as an iconic moment in the long history of presidential debates, and whether to expect anything similar at tonight’s debate in New York.
“Anybody that has worked for President Clinton will tell you that his ability to connect is definitely a combination of both advisers, but also natural instincts, and probably natural instincts trumping even the advice,” Mercer said. In preparing for his debates, Clinton would look to accent his strengths, but also to account for variables that included the moderator, the audience and his opponents' objectives.
“In many gatherings and events with President Clinton back in the '90s, there was hardly a person that was not touched in being near or around his presence,” Mercer continued. “He would run out the clock and beyond in making sure that not only was he touched by every American that was around him, but that he sought out every voter and supporter that was in eyesight or in reach to touch.”
Mercer equated this to Clinton having his “finger on the pulse of the American mood,” which he defined as one of confidence, even in the most troubling of economic conditions.
And with the 2012 campaign taking place amid similar circumstances -- a tough economy and a conversation focused on national debt -- Mercer said he thinks President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have an opportunity tonight to reach out to the average American voter and understand their pain.
“It's a town hall setting, which I believe plays to the strengths of Obama and what we have seen not only on the campaign trail in 2008, but what we see in his leadership and the campaign trail of 2012 -- that's his ability to connect with people,” Mercer said. “What we've seen with former Gov. Romney is a contrast. He has a propensity and a tendency to misfire or misspeak and show that he really doesn't connect with all Americans. So the setting is more placed to the strengths of Obama than it is to Romney.”
But while Obama has shown the ability to connect on a level that Romney has not yet exhibited, the president is still no Bill Clinton. And so, according to Mercer, the challenge lies in not just resonating with words, but being able to break down policy and vision in a way voters at home can both consume and comprehend -- something Obama struggled to do in the first presidential debate two weeks ago.
“What we have seen with the Clinton presidency, candidacy and in general is his ability to take his intelligence, handle on policy and vision of policy and to translate that and to make it understood by the American people,” Mercer said. “It’s about being able to synthesize all the facts and the big issues into something that is relevant -- to be able to explain how your policies relate to the middle-class voter or every American or the hundred percent of America and why that vision is what’s best for the country.”