Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."

Sen. Lloyd Bentsen to Sen. Dan Quayle, Oct. 5, 1988

Tonight the nominees for vice president, Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence, will meet in their only debate.

Frankly, I have long thought that the vice presidential debate was the most pointless of the bunch.

Presidential debates have the potential to be significant in the story of a presidential election campaign. As we are often reminded, they are rare opportunities to see the candidates side by side answering the same questions at the same time. Fortunately, many (but certainly not all) of the questions that are asked in presidential debates are relevant to the office the candidates seek. The candidates' thoughts on domestic and foreign issues are important because the one who is chosen to be president is likely to have to make some pretty important decisions in four years.

What are vice presidents typically called upon to do? Well, of course, the vice president is first in line for the presidency if the incumbent should die (which hasn't happened in more than half a century) or resign (which has only happened once in American history). Otherwise, the vice president's responsibilities are to preside over the Senate (and cast a tie–breaking vote when necessary) and attend state weddings and funerals.

Consequently, the questions that are truly relevant to the office those candidates seek would involve things like how well — and for how long — they can establish order in public meetings. Or how many weddings or funerals they have attended in their public careers. Whether presiding over the Senate or attending a wedding or funeral, perhaps the most important skill a vice presidential candidate can possess is the ability to sit still for long periods of time without squirming or falling asleep.

But nobody would watch that so the questions in vice presidential debates tend to be questions one would ask of a would–be president. After all, you never know. The vice president might wind up becoming president (although the last seven have not). And sometimes those questions are remembered.

But what tend to be memorable about vice presidential debates are the lines that are delivered. Sometimes you know they were prepared well ahead of time and practiced repeatedly in the hope that the foes would give even the slightest opening for them. That was clearly the case 28 years ago tomorrow when Sen. Lloyd Bentsen delivered his devastating "You're no Jack Kennedy" rebuttal to Sen. Dan Quayle.

Bentsen was judged the winner of that debate — but Quayle won the election as George H.W. Bush's running mate.

Vice President Joe Biden may have channeled his inner Bentsen in his debate with Paul Ryan four years ago.

The first vice presidential debate took place nearly 40 years ago on Oct. 15, 1976 when Sen. Walter Mondale squared off with Sen. Bob Dole. Dole, in one of his lighter moments, may have made the best observation about the vice presidency since John Garner asserted that it wasn't worth "a pitcher of warm ****." Dole's assessment of the vice presidency was that it was "indoor work with no heavy lifting."

That was a pretty good line, and it might have been the one for which the debate was remembered — if Dole hadn't chosen to blame the Democrats for the wars that had been fought in the 20th century.

"I figured up the other day if we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century," Dole said, "it would be about 1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit."

"Does he really mean," Mondale asked sarcastically, "that there was a partisan difference over our involvement in the fight against Nazi Germany?"

The 1984 vice presidential debate was the first to include a woman. Geraldine Ferraro, Mondale's running mate, took on Vice President George H.W. Bush and chastised him for his "patronizing attitude."

Twenty–four years later, when Sarah Palin became the first woman on a Republican ticket, her debate with Biden was remembered for her personal request: "Can I call you Joe?"

In 1992, America had its first — and so far only — three–participant vice presidential debate. It is largely remembered for Ross Perot's running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, and his meandering "Who am I? Why am I here?" self–introduction to viewers — which, of course, was lampooned by Saturday Night Live.

Well, you get the idea.

Caitlin Huey–Burns, in a column for RealClearPolitics, contends that Donald Trump has had a bad week since his first debate with Hillary Clinton — and that raises the stakes for Pence in tonight's debate.

Until something happens to prove me wrong, I continue to believe that the vice presidential debate is a colossal waste of time.

On the other hand, we are only five weeks away from all of this being over.

Of course, that will leave us with either Hillary or Trump as president–elect.

Can't win for losing.

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