‘Better Off’ Circa 2012
September 5, 2012
Ronald Reagan used this phrase to bedevil President Jimmy Carter in 1980. The Georgian couldn’t respond either — though the voters could.
Simple and elegant, the question still resonates and can be used to devastating effect. Is it déjà vu all over again?
The 1980 campaign was historic for many reasons. Reagan’s election signaled a radical new direction for America, changing the national morale, the economy and the national defense and foreign policy for more than a generation. For the populist conservative ran not only against the Washington establishment — he ran against the GOP establishment.
Each campaign seems to produce its own emblematic quote, like Sen. Lloyd Bensten’s cringing putdown of Dan Quayle in 1988, “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” The 1980 Reagan-Carter campaign had more than its share. Carter’s “I asked my daughter Amy what she thought the most important issue was, and she said nuclear weaponry” was one; Reagan’s “There you go again” was another.
But the phrase that likely sealed the deal with voters was “Are you better off that you were four years ago?” — which the Gipper used in his summation at the Reagan-Carter debate.
The question remains, however, where did this quote come from?
David Gergen, a former Nixon and Ford aide, says he gave it to Reagan, though many who participated in Reagan debate prep don’t remember this.
Reagan was a talented phrase-maker in his own right. During one mock debate session, Rep. David Stockman of Michigan, standing in for Carter, was pummeling the GOP nominee. Reagan got angry. “Damn it!” he said, “Here you go again!”
His debate team laughed. Reagan relaxed, smiled and said that maybe he’d tuck it away, to use in the real debate. At another session, Stockman was hitting him on the environment and Reagan got another laugh with, “Gee David, maybe I’d better get a gas mask!” That line, fortunately, did not make the debate.
So where did that key question originate? Reagan had been trying similar phrases on the campaign trail that fall. But a newly uncovered memo offers a clue.
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In August 1980, Newt Gingrich, then a young Georgia congressman, had sent a four-page memo to his friend, Jack Kemp, as well as to Rep. Tom Evans and Sen. Paul Laxalt, the Reagan campaign chairman.
The phrase may have come from this memo, according to history professor John Pitney of Claremont McKenna College. Frank Gregorsky, a former Gingrich aide, recently gave Pitney a copy of it.
Gingrich advised in his memo that Reagan, “should look straight into the TV camera and say: ‘You measure in your pocketbook whether or not what he’s just said has been true these last four years. If your life is better, you should vote for him; he is the president and he’s responsible. If your life is worse, you should vote against him; he is the president and therefore responsible.’”
What Reagan said in the debate was: “Next Tuesday, all of you will go to the polls … and make a decision. I think when you make that decision it might be well if you would ask yourself: Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores that it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment? … Is America as respected … that we’re as strong … And if you answer all these questions yes, why then, I think your choice is very obvious as to who you’ll vote for. If you don’t agree … then I could suggest another choice for you.”
Reagan’s remarks did echo some of that Gingrich memo. Both Kemp and Laxalt had Reagan’s ear and either could have passed the Gingrich memo to Reagan or his debate team, according to my research, or at least sent the critical paragraph. Reagan did seem to be trying out different versions during his fall campaign. Two weeks before the debate, the Los Angeles Times reported that Reagan said, “Are you better off than you were in 1976?” at a California campaign stop.
It seems clear, however, that the final phrase was pure Reagan.
Romney, who began his career distancing himself from Reagan, won the GOP nomination in part by attacking Gingrich’s Reaganite credentials. Yet the former speaker may well have given Reagan at least the germ of a phrase — and line of attack — that sent the Californian to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
And now, Romney is posing that very question to the American people.