If the presidential debates are the election year Super Bowl, then the vice-presidential debates might qualify as that year’s Fiesta Bowl. While certainly not as high profile, they may still deliver more spills, thrills, and chills in the final analysis. In fact, before the fairly uneventful 2016 vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Tim Kaine, (which has been called “incomprehensible” by some television pundits due to the frequency with which they interrupted each other) certain previous editions of the VP debate served up great television and some of US history’s most memorable political fireworks.
What Are The VP Debates For?
A vice presidential debate is an effective vehicle with which to acquaint American TV viewers with the men or women who have thrown their hat in the ring as a running mate to the presidential candidate. In the instances of an incumbent president running again for office, the American public will have already been made familiar with the vice president and might view the debate as a rare opportunity to observe them in action, arguing in support of policies and championing the accomplishments of the previous four years. In this instance, the newcomer is likely to be targeted as inexperienced or ignorant of the important issues, and as such, tested in front of a nationwide audience.
Sometimes during the election cycle, presidential candidates will avoid debating or delving into highly controversial issues. New presidential candidates will more frequently avoid facing controversies head-on and will remain extremely careful about which issues they will or will not touch.
Does The VP Debate Matter?
Seeing that the office of Vice President is the second highest in the nation, and in fact, the next in line to the presidency, hearing what the VP candidates have to say to America and to each other ought to be very important. Be that as it may, the VP debate has never seemed to create very much interest in the voting populace and doesn't seem to have any impact on their voting habits. Poll analytics from campaign years between 1976 and 2008 reveal that the VP debate has never moved support from voters in either direction by more than two percentage points.
The VP debate is not alone in its apparent insignificance, however. A similar look at the presidential debates during those years shows very little evidence pointing to greater voter movement towards one party or the other after a presidential debate. With the possible exception of Jimmy Carter’s poor performance in 1976, the Super Bowl of US political debates has not been any more of a game changer than the Fiesta Bowl.
So, do they matter at all? The simple yet profound answer is yes, they do matter because those who aspire to hold two of the most powerful positions in America must be able to stand up and be accountable to the voting public if for nothing else than the sake of democracy. And of course, everyone loves a great TV moment, whether it decides the fate of the presidency or not.
Let’s have a look at the five most memorable moments in the history of televised US vice presidential debates.
5 Most Memorable VP Debate Moments
Cheney v. Edwards - 2004
In this debate, we find Vice-President Dick Cheney, running mate of the incumbent Republican President, George W. Bush, offering up some snark to his rival, the first-term senator John Edwards. Edwards was running alongside Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. “The first time I ever met you was when you walked on stage tonight,” remarked Cheney.
A sex scandal later sunk John Edwards's career. However, Cheney’s legacy as Vice President to George W. Bush is certainly not free from debate or controversy, either.
Quayle v. Gore v… Stockton? - 1992
James Stockdale, the running mate of third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot, made this the only three-person VP debate ever, and it was a memorable one. With current Vice President Dan Quayle on one side and Democratic hopeful Al Gore on the other, the much-decorated retired military man began with the now well-known and derided line, “Who am I? Why am I here?”
Much like Dan Quayle in another of our entries, James Stockdale was mercilessly ridiculed for his debate performance, during which he also toyed incessantly with his poor-functioning hearing aid. Hosted in Atlanta by Georgia Tech and moderated by Hal Bruno, Stockdale had less than a week to prepare, entering the debate without having discussed the issues with his running mate beforehand. He did have one zinger of his own, however, interrupting a Quayle / Gore squabble with the quip, “I think you can see why our country is in gridlock.”
Bush v. Ferraro - 1984
This historical VP debate pitted the incumbent VP, George Herbert Walker Bush, against the very first woman to appear on any major-party ticket on a national scale, Ms. Geraldine Ferraro, the challenger from the Democratic Party and running mate to presidential hopeful, Walter Mondale. As perhaps might have been expected, the gender issue rose early to the forefront and reappeared often, with Bush’s patronizing tone characterizing much of the debate. “Let me help you with the difference, Ms. Ferraro,” said Bush at one point, “between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon.” Ferraro, however, responded coolly by saying that she, “almost resent[ed], Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.”
Despite her Roman Catholic allegiance, Ferraro was famously pro-choice and, as such, under constant fire from the church. But under the hot lights of the televised debate, she managed to staunchly defend her position, garnering obvious support from the audience and perhaps even some well-earned respect from Bush. Holding her ground on issues regarding Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Soviet Union, and Cuba, Ms. Ferraro fought the debate to a roundly proclaimed tie. Many women voters believed Ferraro to be the winner, although some media gave the nod to Bush, with the latter famously stating in the aftermath of the debate, “we tried to kick a little ass last night.”
Biden v. Palin - 2008
Before the 2016 campaign debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the debate between veteran senator, Joe Biden, and big-ticket newcomer, Sarah Palin, was probably the most hotly anticipated in history. Biden was the running mate to Barack Obama, while Palin ran as the Tea Party Republican vice presidential hopeful alongside John McCain.
It ended up drawing 70 million viewers, a record at the time, and became famous for one innocent throwaway line from Sarah Palin, who had only recently risen to national attention, “Can I call you Joe?” Now that’s a first. And, while the outcome was roundly proclaimed a draw, this debate, like the others, did little to predict or influence the result of the election.
Quayle v. Bentsen - 1988
“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
This, now famous remark, was uttered by Senator Lloyd Bentsen, running mate to presidential hopeful Bob Dole, in the 1988 vice-presidential debate versus Republican Dan Quayle, the running mate to then Vice-President George H.W. Bush. The phrase “you’re no Jack Kennedy” or some type of variation of it has become political shorthand to bring down politicians, or any persons thought to be regarding themselves too highly.
Bentsen prepared the comment before the night’s debate after he’d been made aware that Quayle had on other occasions likened his record to that of John F. Kennedy. Once Quayle indeed compared his own congressional record to that of the beloved former President, Bentsen was ready with his infamous zinger: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Ouch. In the aftermath of this debate, the Democrats pounced on the clip, using it frequently in subsequent TV advertisements. It also became regular ammunition for cartoonists and comedians, with Saturday Night Live making their own comment by portraying Quayle in many sketches at the time with a child actor.
Despite the cultural fallout, Quayle managed to successfully grill Bentsen during the debate on Michael Dukakis’s excessive liberalism, viewed by many as a weak point. Since Bentsen did not seem able to defend his running mate on the issue, Quayle considered the message as received. Indeed, Bush won the ensuing election by 8 percentage points in the popular vote. The Democrats picked up just ten states in the Electoral College.
In its relatively short history, the US VP debates held in the run-up to every Presidential Election since the 1976 campaign, have proven to generate interesting buzz. They have created excellent television moments and provided fodder for America’s pundits, cartoonists, and comedians. However, a general historical analysis of the VP debates reveals that in the long run, they have done little to sway voter support in the direction of either the Democrats or the Republicans.
Nevertheless, they have proven significant for introducing the candidates of the second highest office to a national audience. Each VP debate tests the aspiring vice presidents' mettle, courage, and integrity. It's for this reason that Americans will continue tuning in with excitement to see just what the VP candidates will have to say.