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Every candidate looks for an iconic soundbite; a brief video clip that sells voters on his or her appeal. A flash of emotion, a glimpse of character, or a demonstration of sound leadership can define a politician in a way no policy paper does. Being terribly cautious creatures, modern politicians and their layers of handlers avoid spontaneity whenever possible, preferring to manufacture every appearance. However, the excellent candidate capitalizes on the unexpected.
Governor Scott Walker was speaking at the Iowa State Fair Monday when a union activist held up a sign and began to attack his record. I’m confident this wasn’t Walker’s first experience with a labor-backed heckler, but the governor seized the moment.
Walker’s detractors often criticize his laid-back, no drama delivery. This video shows a rare, and seemingly genuine, flash of emotion that can serve him well with voters wanting to see a bit more fire in his belly. Several commenters around the Internet referred to the exchange as Walker’s “I Am Paying for this Microphone” moment, the gold standard of iconic campaign moments. I was about to agree until I refamiliarized myself with that event.
For the young’uns out there (including myself since I was but a paste-eating tween at the time), here’s why Reagan said that famous line and what it meant to his campaign.
Prior to the 1980 New Hampshire primary, the Nashua Telegraph offered to host a debate between the top two contenders, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Since several other candidates were running, the FEC warned this two-man debate might violate election law. So Reagan ponied up his own campaign money to invite Bush and all the other candidates. As the front runner, a larger debate helped Reagan by minimizing the threat from Bush; Reagan vs. All Those Other Guys was better framing than Reagan vs. Not Reagan.
Despite the Gipper paying for the event, the Nashua Telegraph refused to let all the candidates appear as equals, setting tables only for Reagan and Bush. Fifteen minutes after the debate was to begin, Bush took a seat at his table, followed by an angry Reagan and four other candidates by his side.
The newspaper’s representative began to recite ground rules that excluded the others. When Reagan protested, the moderator contemptuously said, “Would the sound man please turn Mr. Reagan’s mic off for the moment?”
Reagan’s face was red by this point and he angrily shouted, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” The crowd erupted in sustained cheers, the four candidates behind him loudly applauded, and George Bush shrunk into his chair, knowing his dream of a two-man race in New Hampshire was over.
The debate was to be a small affair and scheduled to receive little coverage outside of the Granite State. But the unscripted flash of emotion vaulted the debate to the lead of every national news broadcast, showing Reagan as a take-charge leader and Bush as a sheepish also-ran.
Compared to the drama of 35 years ago, Walker’s confrontation was small beans. But in a primary where hot emotion is selling, the Wisconsin governor must be thrilled that Big Labor keeps giving him chances to spike the football in their end zone.