Is The V.P. Debate A Sideshow Or Something More?

Oct 9, 2012
Originally published on October 23, 2012 7:28 am

The reviews are in and, agree with them or not, most people thought Mitt Romney bested Barack Obama in Wednesday's presidential debate. The two don't meet again until Oct. 16, but in the meantime, there will be the vice-presidential face-off this Thursday.

How much pressure is riding on Vice President Joe Biden and Republican challenger Paul Ryan?

Some are selling it as a potential game changer. During his "Weekend Update" review of last week's debate, Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers couldn't hide his glee in anticipation of Thursday's encounter: "Is there anything more exciting than Joe Biden thinking it's up to him to get the lead back?"

Meyers was in effect saying that Biden is likely to entertain us by providing a chuckle or gaffe, or both, as is the V.P.'s wont, and he was looking forward to it. (An unfair caricature of Biden? Perhaps. But didn't he say the other day that the middle class has been "buried" these past four years? He sure did, as you can see below.)

Still, for all the expectation of a Biden gaffe, during his debate four years ago with Sarah Palin, there was none. His reputation for mistakes notwithstanding, he is a fierce competitor who will likely aggressively go after Ryan's proposed budget cuts and attempts to redefine Medicare, an issue on which Democrats expect to come out on top.

We know less what to expect from Ryan, a policy wonk who is 27 years Biden's junior. Since the moment Ryan was chosen, conservatives have said they relish the thought of him debating Biden. We'll see on Thursday.

The real question is: How much of a difference is Biden vs. Ryan expected to make? In the history of vice-presidential debates — a history that goes back only to 1976 — it's hard to make the case that they affected the outcome in any real way. Bob Dole got awful reviews for his dismissive talk of "Democrat wars" in his debate with Walter Mondale in 1976, and yes, the Ford-Dole ticket did lose that year. But with so many strikes against him — the Nixon pardon, the lousy economy, his own No-Soviet-Union-domination-of-Eastern-Europe gaffe during his debate with Jimmy Carter — it's too simplistic to say that President Jerry Ford owed his election defeat to Dole's nasty debate performance.

And in the one V.P. debate that seemingly produced a clear winner and loser — when Lloyd Bentsen delivered his memorable "You're no Jack Kennedy" line to Dan Quayle in 1988 — the fact remains that the Bush-Quayle ticket carried 40 of 50 states that year.

Perhaps, if Bentsen vs. Quayle took place in today's social media age, its effect might have been different. But the story in 1988, as it is in 2012, was on the top of the ticket. And there are still two more presidential debates after this week's V.P. face-off.

It might be more accurate to say that some of these debates affected the individual debaters more than they did the election outcome. In any event, here's a brief summary of the history of vice presidential debates.

1976: Ford, who became president in 1974 following the resignation of Watergate-tainted Richard Nixon, was not the favorite of party conservatives; they clearly preferred Ronald Reagan. One of the things Ford did to attempt to mollify the right was the dumping of his appointed vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, and his naming of Dole as his running mate at the '76 convention. Dole's task, in his Oct. 15 debate with Mondale in Houston was to define him as a knee-jerk liberal who did the bidding of organized labor. And that's what he tried to do, at one point quipping that George Meany, the president of the AFL-CIO, was Mondale's makeup man. For his part, Mondale was equally fierce, calling Dole a captive of special interests who had no compassion for the nation's needy. But the debate was more personal and nasty than the two encounters that already had taken place between Ford and Carter. The most memorable moment was when Dole was asked his view about Ford's pardon of Nixon. Dole said it was not a very good issue, "any more than the war in Vietnam would be, or World War II or World War I or the war in Korea — all Democrat wars, all in this century. I figured it up the other day. If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit." Mondale simply replied that Dole "has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight." And it stuck with Dole for the rest of his career.

1980: None. Republican candidate George H.W. Bush refused to accept Vice President Walter Mondale's offer to debate.

1984: The Oct. 11 debate in Philadelphia between Vice President Bush and Democratic challenger Geraldine Ferraro came four days after the first of two presidential face-offs between President Reagan and Mondale, a debate where most people judged Mondale to be the clear winner. But with Reagan holding such a huge lead in the polls, there was not that much pressure, or attention, placed on Bush and Ferraro. As it was, both made their cases and neither was seen as the winner or loser. Bush was determined to display his long diplomatic and foreign policy background, and he effectively defended Reagan on many subjects. Ferraro appeared less steady on some issues, but she scored with a memorable line after Bush said, "Let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon." "I almost resent," Ferraro immediately said, "your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy."

1988: Clearly the most memorable V.P. debate of them all. Dan Quayle was under fire from the moment he was selected as Bush's running mate, over what he did to avoid combat during the Vietnam War and whether he was qualified to take over should something happen to Bush. Lloyd Bentsen's qualifications were not the issue — he was in his 18th year in the Senate — but he had taken many positions completely different than those by Michael Dukakis, who was atop the Democratic ticket. And he had a much-criticized plan to charge people $10,000 a plate to have breakfast with him, a plan he eventually ditched after much outcry. But it was Quayle's qualifications that dominated the debate. The Indiana senator, who had been in Congress since 1977, said at one point, "I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency." Bentsen almost couldn't wait to respond. "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy," he said. "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." As we later learned, his response was not spontaneous; Quayle had been comparing his tenure to that of Kennedy for some time, and the Texas senator was ready for it. But the audience went wild.

1992: The Oct. 13 debate between Vice President Quayle and Democratic challenger Al Gore in Atlanta turned into a wrestling match almost immediately, with the two candidates trying to speak over each other about President Bush's record and Bill Clinton's honesty and integrity. Quayle received high marks from conservatives for his combativeness; he came into the debate with low expectations, given his performance four years prior. Gore may not have elevated his standing but he wasn't thought to have hurt himself. For pure (inadvertent) entertainment, the appearance of Adm. James StockdaleRoss Perot's running mate — in the debate topped them all. His opening statement — "Who am I? Why am I here?" — was supposed to be a lighthearted way of introducing himself to the American public. But the lines ultimately backfired on Stockdale, who seemed out of sorts and less and less involved as the debate went on. At one point, he had to ask the moderator to repeat a question because his hearing aid wasn't turned on.

1996: Republicans were chomping at the bit at the thought of taking on both President Clinton and Vice President Gore in the debates. But just as presidential challenger Bob Dole's lack of aggressive tactics failed to make him much headway, V.P. candidate Jack Kemp similarly held back from personally attacking Gore in their Oct. 9 debate in St. Petersburg, Fla. If the role of a running mate was to be the hatchet man — see Dole in '76 — Kemp had no interest in it. He was too busy playing up his eternal optimism or expressing his admiration for his opponent. And he also had to contend with questions about some of his differences with Dole. If memory serves, one of the more contentious topics was what to do about Baltimore Orioles' second baseman Roberto Alomar, who spit at an umpire.

2000: Dick Cheney had what George W. Bush lacked: strong credentials and gravitas when it came to foreign policy and national security. And those traits came in handy during the debate Cheney, a former secretary of defense, had with Joe Lieberman. The Oct. 5 debate, held on the campus of Centre College in Danville, Ky. — site of this week's Biden-Ryan debate — was civil and respectful, with both candidates often in agreement with each other.

2004: The Oct. 5 debate between Vice President Cheney and challenger John Edwards mirrored the presidential debate five days earlier, with the chief topic being the decision to invade Iraq. Edwards said the Bush administration had misled the nation into the reasons for going to war, while Cheney said the Democratic ticket couldn't be trusted on national security issues. The two argued over whether the world was safer today because of the war and the capture of Saddam Hussein. Edwards also attacked Cheney's role with Halliburton, and Cheney cited the North Carolina Democrat's seeming lack of substance as well as his "frequent absenteeism" from the Senate. Cheney seemed to get the better of many of their exchanges, including one about same-sex marriage (and the fact that one of Cheney's daughters is gay).

2008: The expectations game played a big role in the Oct. 2 Joe Biden-Sarah Palin debate in St. Louis. Palin had gotten savage reviews for her network TV interviews of recent weeks, in which there were clear questions about her preparedness for the job. For his part, Biden had to avoid coming across as lecturing, condescending or long-winded. Biden certainly accomplished his goal. He was subdued and respectful, and focused more on GOP presidential candidate John McCain and the outgoing Bush administration than on Palin. For her part, the Alaska governor seemed more focused on being folksy and friendly ("Can I call you Joe?"), though she decided at some moments to address the topics she wanted, not the ones the moderator brought up.

2012: Both Biden and Ryan have been mentioned as potential presidential candidates in 2016. Just sayin'.

2012 Debate Sked. All air from 9 to 10:30 Eastern time. Here's the rest of the schedule:

Thursday, Oct. 11 — V.P. debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky. Moderator: ABC's Martha Raddatz.

Tuesday, Oct. 16 — Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. (town meeting format). Moderator: CNN's Candy Crowley.

Monday, Oct. 22 — Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. (foreign policy). Moderator: CBS' Bob Schieffer.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week — some serious, some not — on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin.

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes. Last week, in advance of the first Obama-Romney debate, we did the show in St. Louis before a live audience, none of which would have been possible without the wonderful folks at St. Louis Public Radio.

Special program: We will be doing the show this week in Columbus, Ohio, under the auspices of member station WOSU. And later that evening, at 7 p.m. live at the Fawcett Center Auditorium on The Ohio State University campus, we'll be putting on the latest version of our Political Junkie Road Show. Click here for details.

Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," up every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner in crime, Ron Elving, and me. You can listen to that here:

And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can usually be found in this spot every Monday or Tuesday. A randomly selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. You still have time to submit your answer to last week's contest, which you can see here. Not only is there incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner also gets the very famous Junkie T-shirt!

Most recent winner: Ethan Magoc of Gainesville, Fla.

ON THE CALENDAR:

Oct. 10 — TOTN's Political Junkie segment from Columbus, Ohio.

Oct. 11 -- Vice presidential debate, Centre College in Danville, Ky.

Oct. 16 — Second presidential debate, Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Oct. 22 — Third presidential debate, Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

Nov. 6 — ELECTION DAY. Also: Louisiana primary.

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

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This day in campaign history: Campaigning against Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon is quoted as saying, "Those who have had a chance for four years and could not produce peace should not be given another chance." The reference is to the Johnson-Humphrey administration's Vietnam policy (Oct. 9, 1968). This quote is used four years later on a campaign button and posters used by Democratic nominee George McGovern, who is stressing his opposition to the war in his campaign against President Nixon.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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