Opinion

Did Donald Trump Channel the Harumphing Al Gore in the Debate?

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Al Gore and George W. Bush meet to debate at the University of Massachusetts in Boston on October 3, 2000. Mark Thiessen writes that Trump interrupted or talked over Clinton 28 times. He sighed and let out a groan while she was speaking. In 2000, Gore lost the debate by sighing and rolling his eyes. In 2016, Trump’s interruptions were the sighs and eye rolls of the first debate. reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute’s site.

On September 26, The New York Times published an article called “Debacle”—a fascinating oral history of the first presidential debate in 2000 between Vice President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush, with advisers to each candidate and the moderator sharing their recollections.

Democratic strategist Paul Begala—who played Bush in mock debates with Gore—says he saw trouble coming:

Right away I picked up a problem about Gore during debate prep: a raw, unbridled contempt he had for Bush. It wasn’t the usual “my worthy adversary and I have different ideas.”

He would sometimes sigh when I was talking, or frown, or roll his eyes. And his tone and language too — it all communicated that Gore thought Bush was an idiot.

Gore was advised to cut it out. But when debate night finally arrived, Gore senior advisor David Shrum noted:

Watching the debate, we were winning on substance, we were winning on who was really fit to be president. But Gore was also sighing and reacting to Bush, and there were lots of reaction shots. It was somewhat inexplicable — as if the things that Gore had been told not to do became his to-do list.

Moderator Jim Lehrer recalled:

After the debate I walked out with my family, and one of my daughters said something I’ll never forget. She said, “Oh Dad, isn’t it something, what Gore did?”

I stopped and said, “What do you mean?” Because as a rule, I only look at the candidate who is speaking.

She said, “All that huffing and puffing and eye rolling and sighing.”

I said, “My God, I didn’t know anything about it.”

And she said, “Well, Dad, that’s going to be the lead of the debate stories.”

And she was right. That night proved beyond any shadow of any doubt that body language is truly important in a presidential debate.

Fast forward to last night, the first presidential debate of the 2016 race. This happened:

Trump interrupted or talked over Clinton at least 28 times. Not only that, he sighed and even let out an audible groan while she was speaking. In 2000, Gore lost the debate by sighing and rolling his eyes. In 2016, Trump’s interruptions were the sighs and eye rolls of the first debate.

If you are a hard-core Trump supporter, you loved it. But if you are an undecided voter, not so much. As one such voter told The Wall Street Journal:

“I feel that the way he talks to other people, the way that he addresses other people, can be extremely rude and extremely disrespectful, and I don’t think that’s the temperament we should be looking for in a president,” said Garrett Thacker, 30 years old, of Galloway, Ohio, who has voted for presidential candidates in both parties.

Trump probably didn’t lose any support because of his sighs and interruptions. But he lost an opportunity to expand his support and win over undecided voters—just like Gore in 2000.

Marc A. Thiessen is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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