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Vice Presidential Debates Have Mattered Before. Here's A Look Back

Amid the clamor of the battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, two much lower-key fellows who are also nominees for national office will take the stage Tuesday night in rural Virginia and try to be heard.

Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence will talk about policy and their competing visions for America. They will almost surely offer more substance on issues than we heard in the first debate between the presidential nominees a week earlier.

But any news that comes from Tuesday's Battle of the Twos will most likely be something one or the other says about Trump or Clinton. We can expect both running mates to arrive bearing briefing books full of accusations on emails, taxes, foundations, beauty queens, White House infidelities and foreign entanglements.

How much of all that ammo gets unloaded may depend on which campaign wants to fire first. But going after the ticket's headliner has been "mission critical" for running mates since long before these TV debates began. Not a few vice presidents have been tapped for the role specifically for their slash-and-burn skills, or their talent for getting under the skin of the other party.

But the 2016 campaign has flipped the script in this respect, as in so many others. Unlike running mates of the past, Pence and Kaine have not been unleashed as "attack dogs" to chew viciously on their adversaries. This year, the headlines about outrageous charges have come from the top of the ticket — with help from various TV surrogates and the rest of the media chorus.

Kaine and Pence, by contrast, serve to soften the image of the national tickets. They are Tim and Mike, known by the friendlier, shorter versions of their first names. Both have made their way in politics as loyal party men, to be sure, but as warmer and more personable versions of their respective partisan stereotypes. And both have been known for their ability to maneuver and adapt to changing political circumstances.

So far, at least, both have performed admirably in their subordinate roles. It might even be said that both have exceeded expectations in their assistance to the nominees who chose them.

Kaine has been a prolific fundraiser as well as an affable and effective salesman on the stump. Pence has been enormously influential in bringing religious and social conservatives around to accepting and endorsing Trump. Even some who had pleaded for primary voters to pick anyone but Trump have come on board this fall, however reluctantly; and several have done so after meeting with Pence. Former rival and bitter critic Ted Cruz is one example.

The religious element is also significant for Kaine, who is a champion of the Catholic left and spent part of his law school years as a missionary in Central America. He has reached out to social moderates in his party without generating controversy or alienating Clinton's hardcore feminist backers (at least so far).

Either man might well be embarking on a career at the top levels of our national political conversation. Trump at 70 would be the oldest president ever elected, and Clinton is not far behind. Together, they represent the oldest brace of nominees in our history.

But even now, it is possible to find those in either party who would be far more comfortable with their respective tickets if the current running mate were the nominee.

So, assuming they both perform well, Pence and Kaine will not be making a final bow when they leave the stage at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., Tuesday night.

The Debate Tradition

With the exception of 1980, every presidential election cycle since 1976 has included a live, televised debate between the major candidates for vice president. These events have not drawn the viewership of the presidential debates, and some regard them as a sideshow of little consequence — much as the office of vice president is sometimes mocked as vestigial and meaningless.

But this is 2016, the most super-charged and unpredictable collision of a national election in memory. No clash between these campaigns, their candidates, their surrogates or stand-ins can be anything but portentous.

It may be hard to find a vice presidential debate that turned the November election or changed the trajectory of the campaign. But these debates have served not only to define the character of the running mate but also to reinforce the narrative for each campaign and amplify the choice facing the voters.

So do these debates matter? A case can be made that the person who gets the upper hand in the VP debate has wound up winning in November, more often than not. In any event, the ticket that eventually won the presidency, came away with no worse than a draw in eight of the nine VP debates to date.

The one clear exception was 1988 with Dan Quayle, a senator at the time and the running mate for GOP presidential nominee George H. W. Bush. The Bush-Quayle ticket prevailed that year, but few would say Quayle did much to make that happen — especially in his debate with Democratic nominee Lloyd Bentsen of Texas. (See below.)

Moreover, in recent cycles the vice presidential debate has been at least as entertaining as those between the ticket toppers. Going back over the 40-year history of the event, memorable moments abound, and the list of "greatest hits" is as easy to define as it is for the presidential debates.

1976: Republican Bob Dole versus Democrat Walter Mondale

The inaugural episode saw two longtime Senate colleagues square off as stand-ins for incumbent President Gerald R. Ford (a Republican who had taken over the Oval Office when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974) and upstart Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia. The most memorable moment came when Dole, the often irascible Kansan who was wounded in World War II, referred to that conflict and other 20th century conflagrations as "Democrat wars." A throwback perhaps to isolationist sentiment in the Midwest between the world wars, the remark nonetheless struck many as historically off-key.

1980: (There was no VP debate in this cycle)

The two major campaigns could not agree on the inclusion or exclusion of a third-party option. At the top of the ticket, Democratic President Carter objected to debating both his GOP challenger, Ronald Reagan, and the independent John Anderson (whose running mate was former Wisconsin Gov. Pat Lucey.) So there was only one presidential debate between Carter and Reagan and no VP debate at all.

1984: Republican George H.W. Bush vs. Democrat Geraldine Ferraro

It was Ronald Reagan's re-election year and he was on his way to winning a 49-state landslide. But Democratic nominee Walter Mondale surprised the nation by naming a congresswoman from Queens as his running mate — the first woman on the national ticket of either major party. A former prosecutor, Ferraro held her own in the debate against Bush, then the sitting vice president. Some women felt Bush had condescended to Ferraro, and Mondale's late rallies gained some verve from this theme. But the debate had no discernible effect on the election.

1988: Republican Dan Quayle versus Democrat Lloyd Bentsen

Quayle had been tapped by Bush to fill the job Bush himself had filled for Reagan for eight years. But the Republicans' campaign was stunned by media resistance to Quayle, the scion of a powerful Indiana newspaper family who had been elected to the Senate in his mid-30s. Quayle's Vietnam-era service in the National Guard was also portrayed as a form of draft-dodging, and his early appearances as Bush's wing-man were near-disasters. In the debate, Quayle sought to address the question of his youth by saying he had as much experience as John F. Kennedy had when the latter ran for president. That prompted Bentsen to intone his famous put-down: "Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy; I worked with Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was my friend. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

1992: Quayle versus Democrat Al Gore and Independent James Stockdale

After four sometimes rocky years in the nation's second-highest office, Quayle was again the running mate for President Bush. That year, the Democratic nomination went to Al Gore, a senator from Tennessee who'd been chosen by presidential nominee Bill Clinton. But much of the attention that fall was on the third-party foray by independent Ross Perot, a businessman, and James Stockdale, a retired Navy admiral who had been the senior-most U.S. officer serving as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Stockdale had a sterling record and reputation, but was not a stage performer. He began the debate asking: "Who am I; why am I here?" The questions were rhetorical, but asked in a tone that sounded truly quizzical. Stockdale also had trouble with his hearing device during the debate and did not fully engage at times.

1996: Democrat Al Gore versus Republican Jack Kemp

Four years later, Gore was the incumbent vice president and quite confident he could defend the administration's record of peace and prosperity. The GOP nominee for president was Bob Dole, who surprised many by bestowing the VP slot on Jack Kemp, with whom he had often been at odds. Kemp brought his well-known energy and charm but did not make much of a case for Dole in the debate. The event did not capture much attention, nor did it alter Clinton's re-election trajectory.

2000: Democrat Joseph Lieberman versus Republican Richard B. Cheney

When Gore was himself the nominee four years later, he picked another senator to run with him. Lieberman was a Democrat from Connecticut known for his centrist politics and Orthodox Jewish faith. Gore seemed to think a personally conservative back-up would help him counter the battered image of the Clinton White House (the president had been impeached in 1998 and acquitted by the Senate in 1999). The Republican nominee, George W. Bush, chose Cheney, who had been leading his VP search. Cheney had been White House chief of staff, a top leader in Congress and secretary of defense. He was exceptionally well prepared in their debate (conducted sitting down) and seemed calmly magisterial compared to the deferential Lieberman.

2004: Cheney versus Democrat John Edwards

Cheney, after four years as vice president, was once again the man in charge, while Edwards tried to play the sly but respectful critic. At one point, Edwards, a one-term senator from North Carolina, tried to unnerve the vice president by stating his admiration for the way Cheney and his wife had "embraced" their daughter's lesbian relationship. Cheney stared back coldly while accepting the tribute. But at another point, Cheney unnerved Edwards by saying he had "never laid eyes" on him in the Senate — strongly suggesting the Democrat had often been absent from floor proceedings. The suggestion, while misleading (Cheney's official role in the Senate rarely brought him to the chamber), put Edwards at a psychological disadvantage from which he never recovered.

2008: Republican Sarah Palin versus Democrat Joe Biden

The nomination of Palin was the highlight of the GOP convention in St. Paul that August, and through the first half of September, her star power seemed to energize presidential nominee John McCain and transform the race. But when the full extent of that fall's financial crisis began to be felt across world markets, Palin's brand of populism seemed beside the point. Senior Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware was the Democratic nominee, chosen by Senate colleague Barack Obama. In their debate, Palin, the governor of Alaska at the time, was coherent, confident and relieved not to be asked the kind of questions that had tripped her up on national TV before. But, in the end, the most memorable exchange may have been her asking, "Can I call you Joe?" and Biden smiling broadly as he said, yes.

2012: Biden versus Republican Paul Ryan

The candidates agreed to sit at a console and have a conversation with moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News. All parties were calm, serious and thoughtful, prompting much speculation about the political future of Ryan, the running mate of Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Ryan, the future Speaker, was then a fresh face from Wisconsin known as the detail-oriented budget chairman in the House. Respectful as the proceedings were, Biden had a characteristic moment calling Ryan's critique on foreign policy "malarkey."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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