Wednesday, October 10, 2012

When Vice Presidential Candidates Collide

Walter Mondale and Bob Dole met in the first vice presidential debate in 1976.

History will be made tomorrow night in Danville, Ky., when Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan meet in the vice presidential debate.

This isn't the first time a debate has been held in Danville (population about 16.000). Nor will it be the first time vice presidential candidates have debated. In fact, it will be the ninth time.

It has been said that vice presidential debates have little, if any, influence on the outcome of a presidential election. But they have often been noteworthy.

The first time that vice presidential candidates debated was 36 years ago next Monday, when Walter Mondale and Bob Dole met in Houston.

That night, Dole made a sneering comment about "Democrat wars" and Mondale called him on it.

The vice presidential candidates did not debate in 1980, but, on this day in 1984, the first woman on a major party ticket, Geraldine Ferraro, debated Vice President George H.W. Bush in Philadelphia.

What stands out in my mind about that debate was the blatantly obvious condescending tone of the vice president's remarks. He was a man with an extensive background in foreign affairs, and he appeared to feel that it was beneath him to debate Ferraro, who had a certain amount of knowledge about foreign policy acquired in three terms in the House as well as her experience dealing with appropriations on the House Budget Committee — but nothing remotely comparable to Bush's resume.

Ferraro was right to tell Bush that she "resented" his attitude, but my memory is that Bush was judged the winner that night.

The victory gave a much–needed boost to 73–year–old President Ronald Reagan's campaign for re–election. Reagan had stumbled badly in his first debate with Mondale only four days earlier, and public opinion polls had begun to show some shakiness in his standing with the voters.

(In the aftermath of his widely panned debate performance last week, Barack Obama can only hope that Biden hands him such a gift tomorrow night.)

When Reagan met Mondale in their second and final debate a week and half later, he seemed energized, and he gave a much stronger performance, essentially locking up his 49–state landslide.

The vice presidential candidates debated early in October in 1988 — on Oct. 5, a date that has been chosen for vice presidential debates three times. It was on that first occasion — in Omaha, Neb. — that Sen. Lloyd Bentsen told Sen. Dan Quayle that he was "no Jack Kennedy."

Twenty years ago this Saturday, the first — and, so far, only — three–way vice presidential debate was held in Atlanta.

(The first–ever three–way presidential debate was held 20 years ago tomorrow.)

The vice presidential debate in 1992 was memorable for the things the third wheel in that debate — Ross Perot's running mate, Admiral James Stockdale — said.

I always thought that was something of a pity because Stockdale was an intelligent and exceptionally brave individual. He spent seven years in a Viet Cong POW camp and suffered severe physical injuries during his captivity.

He had earned the right to be treated with respect, but the fact that he was not a career politician worked against him in an arena where that kind of experience would have served him well.

After the debate, jokes were made about his halting and confused delivery, his opening statement ("Who am I? Why am I here?") and other nifty sound bites that, taken together, made Stockdale look old and foolish.

But the truth was that Stockdale did not know he would be participating in the debate until about a week before, and he got no advice from Perot. He was about as unprepared as a man could be for a nationally televised debate — and it showed.

Two days ago was the 16th anniversary of the debate between Vice President Al Gore and Jack Kemp in St. Petersburg, Fla., during the 1996 campaign.

On Oct. 5, 2000, Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman debated in Danville.

Four years later, to the day, now–Vice President Cheney debated John Edwards in Cleveland.

Four years ago, on Oct, 2, Biden debated Sarah Palin in St. Louis.

If you have no real memory of those debates, don't worry about it. As I say, they don't seem to matter much when people make up their minds how to vote.

But they can be quite entertaining.

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