BAYHAM: Looking Back At Vice-Presidential Debates

John Nance Garner has been attributed as the source of the famous estimation that the vice-presidency was “not worth a pitcher of warm piss.”

And no, that last word is not an error.

The “pee word” was substituted with “spit” so as to take some of the edge off the rough description on what is constitutionally the nation’s second-highest office.

The vice-presidency matters if only because its occupant is only a heartbeat away from occupying the Oval Office. Funny how someone who holds such a mocked position could become the de facto leader of the free world in the blink of an eye.

And since Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth term, five vice-presidents have ascended to the presidency, four of them advancing directly.

The League of Women Voters pushed for the initial square off between the major parties’ candidates for vice-president, which took place in 1976.

Since then the vice-presidential debates have been more consequential for the later presidential ambitions of the participants than they’ve been for overall ticket in the election, with rare exception.

President Gerald Ford’s running mate, Kansas US Senator Bob Dole, and Jimmy Carter’s choice for vice-president, Minnesota US Senator Walter Mondale, squared off in Houston and the debate did not go well for Dole, who came off bitter and angry.

Dole’s most infamous moment was when he referred to World Wars I and II, the Korean Conflict and Vietnam as “Democrat wars”. Mondale replied “that Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight”.

Mondale, whose ticket was well ahead in the polls, did his best not to lose the debate rather than trying to score a decisive win.

Since the Republican ticket lost the 1976 election by a sliver (just over 11,000 votes in Ohio and just over 7,000 votes in Hawai’i), it’s possible that the vice-presidential debate did as much to cost the election as the Polish vote in Cleveland and Honolulu.

Only two years removed from the brooding administration of Richard Nixon, Dole’s negative performance did not do his cause in 1976 nor his own presidential bids in 1980 and 1988 any favors.

Arguing over the inclusion of independent candidate John Anderson and his running mate Patrick Lucey led to the scrapping of the planned vice-presidential debate and one of the three scheduled presidential debates as President Carter refused to participate in any event where Anderson was invited.

The 1984 vice-presidential debate between then-Vice-President George Bush and New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro attracted over fifty million television viewers, a record for a veep debate that would stand until 2008.

Bush questioned Ferraro’s experience, having been a US Representative less than six years when selected for the Democratic Party’s second spot on the ticket. Ferraro took umbrage at Bush’s “patronizing attitude” and blasted him for being condescending. One of the more memorable comments about the debate came from Bush, when the vice-president commented that he “tried to kick a little ass last night”.

The debate and the vice-president’s self-assessment had zero effect as Ronald Reagan cruised to a second term with 49 states.

The 1988 debate between Indiana US Senator Dan Quayle and Texas US Senator Lloyd Bentsen will forever be remembered for, and vice-presidential debates will always be associated with, Bensten’s admonishment to Quayle for claiming he had as much experience as Kennedy had when he sought the presidency in 1960.

Bentsen replied to Quayle’s boast with “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Now for a post-debate reality check.

Quayle had served in the US House of Representatives for four years and was on his eighth year as a US Senator when Vice-President Bush invited him on to the GOP ticket.

JFK was elected to Congress in 1946 and elected to the upper chamber in 1952.

Quayle had served on Capitol Hill twelve years while Kennedy served fourteen years.

But another point that was lost- Kennedy was frequently hospitalized for medical maladies and had missed a number of votes. Last rites had even been performed on the Massachusetts senator. In all actuality, Quayle probably had more experience performing his duties in Congress than Kennedy.

Bentsen had served with Kennedy in the 435-member US House of Representatives for four years before Kennedy left for the senate. The two were not friends and Bentsen had not even been invited to Kennedy’s wedding in 1953. Bentsen was guilty of a gross exaggeration at best and outright deceit at worst.

In politics, facts can be stubborn and at other times conveniently forgotten.

Furthermore, Bentsen knew Quayle was going to make the Kennedy self-comparison so he had the line in the can, ready for release. And to the Texan’s credit, he delivered it masterfully though it did not even act as a breakwater in the Bush tsunami in 1988.

The three-way dance in 1992 is best remembered not for anything said by the major parties’ veep candidates but for the confused performance by Ross Perot’s running mate retired Admiral James Stockdale, who rhetorically asked “Who am I? Why am I here?”

Quayle acquitted himself far better in the 1992 debate against Stockdale and Tennessee US Senator Al Gore, the Democrats’ nominee for vice-president. Once again, the vice-presidential debate had no effect on the outcome of the presidential election.

The 1996 vice-presidential debate between then-Vice-President Al Gore and former HUD Secretary Jack Kemp was irrelevant to the 1996 campaign but marked the end of whatever hope the ex-football star had at becoming president (more on this tomorrow).

The 2000 Dick Cheney-Joe Lieberman face-off attracted the second lowest television audience for a vice-presidential debate. Cheney outperformed his Democratic opponent and the results of Florida were agonizingly close, but Lieberman’s performance in the debate was not considered a reason why the Democratic ticket lost.

If anything, Lieberman’s presence on the ticket was an asset that likely made Florida more competitive than most observers expected it to be. Lieberman’s fellow Democrats apparently did not share this assessment as they scuttled his 2004 presidential bid early and Gore endorsed Howard Dean over his own running mate.

The 2004 debate between Cheney and North Carolina US Senator John Edwards had a major awkward moment when Edwards casually mentioned Cheney’s lesbian daughter Mary, perhaps in a bid to irritate social conservatives who opposed gay marriage.

Edwards only succeeded in coming off as unseemly in the exchange.

Social conservatives didn’t budge from supporting Bush-Cheney, the vice-president was visibly displeased and Mary later referred to Edwards as “total slime”. Edwards did not deliver his homestate of North Carolina for John Kerry.

In retrospect, Mary may have been more right then she knew.

Finally there was the 2008 debate between Alaska governor Sarah Palin and Delaware US Senator Joe Biden. Seventy million Americans tuned in to one of the most watched political debates in broadcast television history. Palin needed to do well in the debate to make up for unfavorable interviews that led to questions about her qualifications.

Biden, observing a “do no harm” posture”, pulled his punches and seemed to have a wide yet insincere smile plastered on his face most of the debate.

With the housing and financial crises overshadowing the campaign, Republican nominee John McCain’s panicked reaction to the situation and President George W. Bush’s staggering unpopularity, Palin could have run circles around Biden and it would not have mattered.

Though Palin gave an uneven performance at times, she proved not to be the lightweight she was portrayed by the media.

Biden, who had been a US Senator since the seventies, botched the section of the US Constitution that deals with the executive branch, but was never called out on his “constitutional potatoe”.

The debate was a tactical victory for Palin as the poll gap between McCain and Obama shrank a bit.

However Palin’s debate performance provided more fodder for the folks at Saturday Night Live to further mock the vilified veep candidate. More significantly, she failed to establish herself as the natural GOP standard bearer for 2012.

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