On this day in 1996, Democratic President Bill Clinton faces his Republican challenger, Senator Bob Dole from Kansas, in their first debate of that year’s presidential campaign.
The debate, which took place in Hartford, Connecticut, and was moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS, gave the candidates a chance to put forth their views on education, the economy, Medicare and tax cuts. Clinton took credit for improving the economy and slashing the budget deficit he had inherited from George H.W. Bush when he took over the presidency in 1992. Dole challenged Clinton’s “ad hoc” approach to foreign affairs, challenged his record on crime and spending and proposed a whopping tax cut of more than $550 billion.
The debate was civil and devoid of personal attacks except on the subject of recreational drug use. Dole criticized Clinton’s policy regarding the illegal importation and use of drugs, saying the president’s chosen drug czar was “soft” on the issue. He then referred to Clinton’s admission during his first presidential campaign that he had tried marijuana in his youth but “didn’t inhale.” Dole asked the crowd “is that the kind of leadership we need? And I won’t comment on other things that happened in your administration or your past about drugs.” Clinton dodged the issue of his own drug experiment, and insisted he agreed with Dole that drugs were a serious problem in America. “We just have a different approach. But let me remind you, my family has suffered from drug abuse. I know what it’s like to see somebody you love nearly lose their life, and I hate drugs, Senator.” Bill Clinton’s half-brother, Roger, had struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and had been arrested for dealing cocaine in 1984.
Dole and Clinton met again to debate on October 16. Polls indicated that most voters considered Clinton the winner of the debates and he handily won re-election to a second term in November.