'Nasty woman' and 'bad hombres' Remember these viral moments from past debates? (2024)

Ever since the first televised presidential debate in 1960, face-offs between candidates have been more about their political performances and less about a platform for policy discussions. And few things make any performance, political or not, as impactful as memorable one-liners.

With 2024's first on-stage showdown between President Joe Biden and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump days away, here are some of the most unforgettable wisecracks, comical sound bites and searing retorts from more than 50 years of televised debates.

'There you go again': Carter v. Reagan, 1980

Some quotes have gone from post-debate fodder to permanent additions to the American political lexicon.

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Chief among them is Republican Ronald Reagan's quip to his Democratic opponent, President Jimmy Carter, during their 1980 debate. In response to Carter’s criticisms that the former California governor campaigned against Medicare, Reagan remarked, "There you go again," a linguistic equivalent of an eye-roll.

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It was one of two quotable moments from the would-be Republican victor, along with his question to voters, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

'My opponent's youth and inexperience': Reagan v. Mondale, 1984

Reagan continued to deliver memorable one-liners during his 1984 campaign against Democratic opponent Walter Mondale.

By the second presidential debate, Reagan was 73 years old – already the oldest president in U.S. history at the time. When asked if he was too old to be president, he responded, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

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By turning the question on its head, Reagan poked fun at his opponent and deflected attention from his advanced age.

'Job-sucking sound': Perot v. Bush v. Clinton, 1992

Ross Perot remains the first and only third-party candidate to qualify for the presidential debate stage. During a first-of-its-kind televised town hall format against Democratic nominee Bill Clinton and Republican President George H. W. Bush, Perot said Americans should expect a "job-sucking sound going south" as companies moved to Mexico to cut costs if Congress approved NAFTA.

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The phrase morphed into “a giant sucking sound,” according to policy expert James M. Lindsay, and entered became a "pithy way" to summarize the case against free trade.

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'An ironclad lockbox': Gore v. Bush, 2000

Though Vice President Al Gore was considered the more battle-tested candidate against Republican Governor George W. Bush, Gore's debate snafus did not instill the most confidence.

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He was caught several times throughout the pair's three televised debates audibly sighing, rolling his eyes, or looking visibly exasperated. And during the first debate, Gore caught attention in other ways, repeating the words "lockbox" or "locked box" seven times when referring to Medicare and Social Security. "I think we need to put Medicare and Social Security in a lockbox," Gore said during the debate. "The governor will not put Medicare in a lockbox."

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Saturday Night Live had a field day with "lockbox" shortly afterward.

'You’re likable enough': Obama v. Clinton, 2008

A moderator's question about likeability resulted in one of the most withering responses from Obama during a 2008 debate against Sen. Hillary Clinton.

"What can you say to the voters of New Hampshire on this stage tonight who see your resume and like it but are hesitating on the likability issue, where they seem to like Barack Obama more?" the moderator asked Clinton.

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"He’s very likable. I agree with that," Clinton responded. "I don’t think I’m that bad."

Obama's response: "You’re likable enough, Hillary."

'Binders full of women': Romney v. Obama, 2012

Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s most viral moment during the 2012 debates against President Barack Obama veered closer to comedy than critiques.

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In response to a question about equal pay for women in the workforce, Romney said he was disappointed with the lack of women applying for jobs to join his cabinet as Massachusetts governor. He said he tried to recruit qualified women for the roles. I went to a number of women's groups and said, 'Can you help us find folks?' and they brought us whole binders full of women." The "binders full of women" sound bite exploded on social media platforms.

'The 1980s are calling': Obama v. Romney, 2012

In a different debate, Obama poked fun at Mitt Romney after the GOP challenger said Russia was the biggest geopolitical foe facing the U.S. Obama went on the attack, claiming Romney said Russia, not al-Qaida, was the country's biggest threat.

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Fact-checks at the time differentiated between foe and threat, which the two briefly sparred over, but still led to the President's headline-grabbing zinger: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years," Obama said.

‘Such a Nasty Woman’: Trump v. Clinton, 2016

The third presidential debate between Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump was memorable, with critics accusing Trump of stalking Clinton around the stage.

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But one of the most significant lines came from the soon-to-be-president when he referred to Clinton as “such a nasty woman” in response to her talking points on how to improve the Social Security program. It was widely seen as a sexist insult. However, the phrase took on new meaning and helped launch a feminist movement of self-proclaimed “nasty women” rallying against Trump in the 2016 race.

'Bad hombres': Trump v. Clinton, 2016

Trump didn't stop with "nasty woman." In answering a question about how he would handle border security, Trump said his first priority in the White House would be to get "drug lords" and other undocumented immigrants out of the country.

"Once the border is secured, at a later date, we’ll make a determination as to the rest. But we have some bad hombres here, and we’re going to get them out,” he said, using the Spanish word for men.

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The term was panned as racist in alluding to Latino men as dangerous or criminal. It was a continuation of language used by Trump throughout his candidacy, after kicking off his campaign by calling Mexicans entering the country "rapists" and drug dealers.

'Will you shut up, man?': Biden v. Trump, 2020

As far as debate chaos goes, Biden's debate against then-President Trump tops the list. As they discussed the open seat on the Supreme Court and the prospect of ending the filibuster, Trump repeatedly interrupted his opponent, leading to a jumble of the two talking over the other and the moderator attempting to take control of the conversation. The back-and-forth ended with Biden finally saying: “Will you shut up, man?”

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Contributing: USA TODAY's Ledyard King, Rebecca Morin and Melissa Cruz

Kathryn Palmer is an elections fellow for USA TODAY. Reach her at kapalmer@gannett.com and follow her on X @KathrynPlmr.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Presidential debate moments that went viral: 'Bad hombres' and more

'Nasty woman' and 'bad hombres' Remember these viral moments from past debates? (2024)
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