Thursdays from now until the election, we will feature a piece by a UPK author that deals with an aspect of American politics. Today, Joel K. Goldstein, author of The White House Vice Presidency, discuses the importance and possible impact of Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate.
When Senator Tim Kaine and Governor Mike Pence square off in the vice-presidential debate on October 4, 2016 they will be engaging in an institution that is both unique and important in American government. The debate, which will take place at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., will be the tenth vice-presidential debate over the last 40 years.
The unique quality of a vice-presidential debate comes from several features. The major party presidential candidates typically debate two or three times, but Kaine and Pence will have only one vice-presidential debate, a pattern that has been followed in every presidential campaign beginning with 1976 except 1980. Accordingly, the stakes for the vice-presidential candidates are high; they have no chance to redeem a poor performance as, for instance, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama did in their second debates in 1984 and 2012 respectively.
The debate also presents a novel experience for the running mates. After all, presidential candidates have been debating during the primary season; the vice-presidential candidates have not had that opportunity except in the rare instances where they were unsuccessful presidential candidates that year (John Edwards, 2004; Joe Biden, 2008).
Moreover, the vice-presidential candidates are frequently relatively unknown. It is not unusual for 30% to 50% of the electorate to feel it knows too little about the vice-presidential candidates to have a firm opinion about them. Some surveys suggest that is the case this time. Neither Pence nor Kaine has run for president, served in high visibility roles, or attracted extensive attention (as Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin did).
Finally, the focus of the vice-presidential debate is not so much on the two candidates on stage but on the two national candidates who are absent that night, the presidential candidates. The vice-presidential candidates therefore must be conversant regarding their record and that of their counterpart but also with the positions and biography of the two presidential candidates.
These features introduce some interesting dynamics into the debate. Because many voters will not have fixed opinions about them, vice-presidential candidates want to make a good impression in this signature campaign event to help shape the initial public perceptions of them. How they are regarded will affect their utility during the remainder of the campaign and the extent to which the public views them as a plausible president. Accordingly, they want to present themselves in an appealing way which may lead them to minimize the extent to which they attack the opposing ticket. On the other hand, their role is largely to support the party standard-bearer, by echoing his or her themes, defending his/her views, actions and qualifications and attacking those of the opposing presidential candidate. If the vice-presidential candidates spend a lot of time talking about themselves or their opponent, they are probably missing their main mark.
Yet even if the vice-presidential candidates are not entirely the focus of the vice-presidential debate, the vice-presidential debate is an important institution. It gives presidential candidates greater reason to choose a running mate who is able and accomplished and who can perform well under the bright lights of a national campaign. It focuses the spotlight on the second candidates, thereby making it easier for voters to consider them in casting their votes. Thus, the vice-presidential debate contributes to the quality of vice-presidential candidates (and vice presidents) and helps make their election more democratic.
And sometimes the vice-presidential debate makes a difference. In the first debate in 1976, Senator Walter F. Mondale helped, and Senator Bob Dole hurt, his cause. Mondale had themes and presented himself in an appealing way; Dole came across as sarcastic and unfocused. The highlight of the debate came when Dole blamed the Democratic party for all of the wars in the 20th century, prompting Mondale’s rebuke that “Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight, by implying, and stating, that World War II and the Korean War were Democratic wars.” Thereafter, Governor Jimmy Carter routinely cited the Mondale-Dole choice as a reason voters should support him, the Democrats used the vice-presidential choice in campaign ads, and Mondale contributed to Carter’s victory.
Dick Cheney was seen as having bested his rivals in the 2000 and 2004 debates; Senator Joe Lieberman’s unwillingness to attack the Republican ticket vigorously in 2000 was seen as a missed opportunity for the Democrats in a painfully close election.
In 2012, Vice President Joe Biden shifted the momentum in the Democrats’ favor after President Barack Obama had a substandard first debate. Biden ridiculed the positions of Governor Mitt Romney and Representative Paul Ryan and his performance energized the Democratic base.
The Biden-Palin debate outdrew the presidential debates that year, the only time the undercard debate has received such relative prominence. After Palin’s disastrous interview with Katie Couric, many watched the debate anticipating a monumental meltdown. She got through the debate without any such debacle but failed to persuade most Americans that she was qualified to be president. By contrast, Biden provided a masterful performance. Whereas the Pew Research Center found that only 42% thought Palin was qualified to be president (compared to 52% who did not), 77% saw Biden as qualified (as opposed to 16%).
The most famous moment in presidential debate history, of course, occurred in the 1988 vice-presidential debate when Senator Lloyd Bentsen delivered his “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy” putdown to Senator Dan Quayle after the Indiana senator had compared his congressional experience to that of JFK. Quayle had actually done pretty well in the debate, attacking Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis as a tax-and-spend liberal. But when the panel of reporters persisted in asking Quayle what he would do if he became president, Quayle misinterpreted the questions as challenging his qualifications and ignored his handlers’ admonition to avoid the JFK comparisons and spoiled an otherwise successful evening. The rest, as they say, is history.
Quayle went on to become vice president and contributed in that role to the George H.W. Bush administration. But he never escaped that dramatic moment and we’re reminded of it every four years about this time as it is replayed again and again.
That provides a cautionary tale for Mssrs. Pence and Kaine as they approach this major event in their national political careers. No matter how well they do in presenting themselves and in sounding campaign themes, celebrating their ticket-mate, and criticizing the opposing presidential candidate, one inopportune moment may prove defining. Or a uniformly impressive performance may enhance their stature and their ticket’s prospects.
By Joel K. Goldstein, Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law, Saint Louis University School of Law