Saturday, October 11, 2014

A First in Presidential Politics

"Let me just say, first of all, that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy."

Rep. Geraldine Ferraro
Oct. 11, 1984

Thirty years ago tonight, a woman participated in a vice presidential debate for the first time.

Actually, that isn't really as impressive as it sounds. There had been only one vice presidential debate prior to that — between then–Sen. Walter Mondale and then–Sen. Bob Dole in 1976. If Geraldine Ferraro had not been a participant, the debate probably never would have garnered the attention it did.

But it was part of the historic nature of the 1984 campaign. Ferraro, after all, was the first woman to be nominated to a major party's national ticket. Minor parties had nominated women before, but few of them managed to win even 1% of the popular vote. Most were mere footnotes in the annals of presidential politics. Even the first women to seek a major party's presidential nomination — Republican Margaret Chase Smith in 1964 and Democrat Shirley Chisholm in 1972 — were treated more as oddities than legitimate candidates.

Conventional wisdom holds that, in any election, a Democrat can count on winning one–third of the vote, a Republican can count on winning one–third of the vote, and the election will be decided by what that final one–third — the undecided, the uninformed and the easily swayed — choose to do. Consequently, Ferraro knew she would receive more votes for a national office than any woman before her — although, as it turned out, the Democrats lost that last one–third of the vote by a wide margin.

Conventional wisdom also holds that most people don't vote for the running mate. They vote for the candidate at the top of the ticket.

Now, personally, I have never been a big fan of vice presidential debates. What is there to debate? Vice presidents don't make policy. In fact, it is only in the last 40 years that the vice president has been treated as a legitimate and contributing member of the executive branch — but the transition has been a work in progress. Vice presidents still serve, as they always have, as the designated national representatives at foreign weddings and funerals. Vice presidents also preside over the Senate and cast votes when needed to break ties.

(That is why the distinction is made in this year's midterm elections that Republicans need to control 51 seats to take over the Senate whereas the Democrats need to control 50 seats. The decisive vote in a tie in the Senate belongs to the party in the White House because the vice president presides over the Senate.)

Otherwise, their chief responsibility is to stay awake during tedious Senate debates, even if they are battling jet lag from having just returned from a funeral halfway around the world.

But if vice presidential debates focused only on those experiences that qualify a person to be vice president, no one would tune in. After all, who wants to hear people talk for 90 minutes about their experience attending funerals or weddings or how they managed to stay awake through tedious legislative debates?

So vice presidential debates focus on issues that presidents are able to influence — sometimes — and other times are not able to influence. In short, a vice presidential debate is predicated on the assumption that one of the participants will one day become president, by assassination or election or maybe even resignation, and, consequently, it is necessary to know the candidates' views on abortion and guns.

Actually, the notion that it is inevitable that a vice president will one day be president is absurd. Forty–seven men have served as vice president; fourteen went on to become president. That's less than 30% — and most of them became president following the death of the incumbent. It is by no means certain that they would have been elected president on their own. Five only served out their predecessors' unexpired terms, then faded into obscurity. Only four (that's less than 9%) were elected to the presidency without the benefit of having ascended after the death or resignation of someone else — and two of them were elected before presidential elections started involving a popular vote in the early 19th century.

The vice presidency simply never has been the stepping stone to the presidency that you might think it would be.

Many vice presidents have gone on to seek the presidency on their own. Many failed to win their party's nominations — and all who did win the nomination after 1836 and before 1988 were defeated (with the exception of 1968, when Richard Nixon, running as a former vice president, won both the Republican nomination and the general election).

George H.W. Bush, of course, had sought the presidency before — in 1980, he had been Ronald Reagan's top rival for the Republican presidential nomination before being chosen to be Reagan's running mate. Ferraro, however, never had sought the presidency. She had barely sought the House seat she occupied, having won three terms, and was barely known outside her district.

So why was it important? It was important for Democrats to keep the momentum going after Mondale's first debate with Reagan. The polls showed the Democratic ticket trailing the Republican ticket by a wide margin — correctly, too, as it turned out — and the Democrats' hopes for victory depended on a perception of sustained momentum.

Bush's objective was simple — halt the Democrats' momentum, then Reagan could close the deal in the rematch with Mondale later that month.

My memory of that night is that neither candidate was the clear winner — which, in some ways, was a victory for Bush because it supported opposition arguments that the Democrats' momentum had stalled. If Bush had been the clear loser, the Democrats would have had momentum decisively on their side when Mondale faced Reagan in their second and final debate a week and a half later. But the absence of a clear winner changed the conversation.

For the next couple of decades, women were frequently mentioned as potential running mates for presumptive nominees — but such talk was mostly to appease women voters. A vice presidential debate has been part of every presidential election since 1984, but Ferraro remained the only member of the club of major–party female nominees for almost a quarter of a century.

It was a week shy of 24 years later — on Oct. 3, 2008 — that a female nominee participated in another vice presidential debate. That was the day that then–Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, the first female nominee on a Republican ticket, and then–Sen. Joe Biden met in their only debate of the 2008 campaign.

Once again, the conclusion was that the debate had been a draw. As nearly as I could tell, the 2008 vice presidential debate, like the one in 1984, had no influence on the outcome of the race.

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