Updated: Jan 21, 2021
With the Presidential election less than a week away we thought it was time to mention the best campaign zingers ever. Some are funny, others scathing, but one thing is for certain: challenging political opponents on a personal level has been a staple of campaigns for a long time. We’ll throw in a little context as appropriate.
“I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Ronald Reagan
In 1984, Ronald Regan had the same problem as both 2020 candidates: at age 76, his opponent was making a campaign issue of his age. The opponent, Walter Mondale, was only 56. Regan would go on to win reelection by a landslide.
“Read my lips: no new taxes.” George H.W. Bush
Taking on a common theme in presidential debates, George H.W. Bush promised not to raise taxes if elected president. He was later elected to succeed Ronald Reagan, then defeated by Bill Clinton four years later. The reason? Bush had to raise taxes.
“I leave it to my audience. If I had another face, would I wear this one?” Abraham Lincoln
Running for president in 1858, Abraham Lincoln was answering a barb from challenger Stephen Douglas. The occasion? Douglas referred to Lincoln as “two faced.” Lincoln’s response reflects the fact that he was not a good-looking man, so he was making fun of himself.
“Do you realize the responsibility I carry? I’m the only one standing between Richard Nixon and the White House.” John F. Kennedy
In 1960, Kennedy and Nixon were in a heated campaign for the Presidency. JFK won that year, but he wouldn’t finish his term. Halfway through, in 1963, he was assassinated. Nixon went on to become president in 1969, after defeating Lyndon Johnson.
“I only spent four years as a governor. I didn’t inhale.” Mitt Romney
Romney was trying to distinguish himself during the 2011 Republican presidential primaries. This was a dig taken at Bill Clinton, who admitted using marijuana as a young man but “didn’t inhale.” In this case, failure to inhale was a reference to his time in business before entering politics. Romney would win the Republican nomination for president but went on to lose against Barack Obama.
“If I had to name my greatest strength, I guess it would be my humility. Greatest weakness, it’s possible that I’m a little too awesome.” Barak Obama
Obama is known for his sense of humor. This zinger was delivered during a 2008 campaign fundraiser. Obama would go on to defeat Republican challenger John McCain. Obama’s Vice President? Our current Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
“I do not believe that any political campaign justifies the declaration of a moratorium on ordinary common sense.” Dwight Eisenhower
During the 1956 Presidential election, Eisenhower was facing Democrat Adlai Stevenson. Part of the Democratic platform was the abolition of the military draft and nuclear weapons testing. In this statement, Eisenhower was saying that those platform items defied common sense. He went on to win a second term.
“When I hear your new ideas, I’m reminded of that ad: ‘Where’s the beef?’ ” Walter Mondale
Mondale made this comment during the Democratic primaries in 1984. He was challenging his opponent Gary Hart, who kept introducing lots of supposedly new ideas to try and get nominated. Mondale went on to win the nomination but was then defeated by Ronald Reagan. The quote “where’s the beef?” It was from a Wendy’s commercial touting the all-beef patties in their burgers.
“We took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our Cabinet. 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.” Mitt Romney
Romney responding to a debate question in the 2012 campaign. Democrats made equal pay for women a major issue that year. The phrase “binders full of women” rubbed people the wrong way. Romney would go on to lose the election, while Barak Obama gained a second term.
“There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Gerald Ford
In 1976, incumbent President Gerald Ford was standing for election the first time. He had taken over after Nixon was forced to resign during the Watergate scandal in 1974. Gerald Ford was known for having the shortest presidency that did not end in assassination. He lost to Jimmy Carter.
“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Lloyd Bentsen
Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen in a debate with Republican Dan Quayle. This was the 1988 election, and President Regan could no longer run due to term limits. George H.W. Bush would go on to win the presidency.
“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Ronald Reagan
Jimmy Carter was running for re-election in 1980. During the Seventies, there had been a severe economic downturn. Regan was accusing Carter of being ineffective at turning the economy around and restoring American prosperity.
“A flub-dub with a streak of the second rate and common in him.” Theodore Roosevelt
Roosevelt, on the subject of incumbent William Taft. The 1912 Presidential election was unusual, because a split in the Republican party meant there were three major candidates. Roosevelt was the head of the Bull Moose Party, formed after he failed to get the Republican nomination. There was no love lost between those men, and Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, won.
“George Bush taking credit for the Berlin Wall coming down is like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise.” Al Gore
In 1992, George H.W. Bush was running for re-election against Bill Clinton. At the Vice Presidential debate, Clinton’s VP Gore said this about Bush. In the end, Bush would lose to Clinton, purportedly because of his broken campaign promise not to raise taxes.
“Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.” Ronald Reagan
Blaming economic problems on an incumbent president is nothing new, is it?