Donald Trump

About That 1980 Iowa Debate Ronald Reagan Skipped

It wasn't because he thought someone was mean to him, and after the Iowa caucus Reagan realized he had made a mistake.


Donkey Hotey/flickr

Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump's Twitter squad is pushing the idea that Donald Trump rage-quitting the Fox News debate because he thinks Megyn Kelly is mean to him makes him as presidential as Ronald Reagan, because Reagan also skipped a GOP debate in Iowa.

For all his faults, Ronald Reagan ran a campaign of optimism and small government in 1980. That campaign ended in a landslide over incumbent Jimmy "malaise forever" Carter. No one would mistake the "Trump train" and its never-ending anger, xenophobia, and even class envy for a campaign of optimism. Sure, Trump, like Reagan, wants to "make America great again," but Trump's vision doesn't include America as a "shining city on a hill" for the world to aspire to. It involves a giant wall.

More importantly, and this ought to be obvious, the context of Reagan's decision to skip the 1980 debate is different than the context of Trump's decision. Reagan was not in a petty feud with the Des Moines Register at the time. His campaign manager simply believed that as the frontrunner, Reagan was above the debate. Only five of the nine Republicans vying for the nomination participated in the debate. That debate was the first Republican primary debate since 1948. It was not planned to be a televised debate—that came later. And after Reagan's loss in Iowa, he pivoted, ignoring his campaign manager's advice and deciding not to skip future debates.

That's very different from the circumstances surrounding Trump's decision. While you can't necessarily expect more from Trump's political supporters (or any kind of partisan fanatics), you should expect more from news outlets than passing off a decontextualized factoid in the course of their reporting.

Check out that 1980 debate below, which has very little resemblance in tone and presentation from debates "these days."