My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.
- John Adams, First Vice President of the United States, 1793
Since our nation’s first vice president took his oath of office in 1789, the office in which John Adams labored under the shadow of George Washington has been much maligned. Despite the scorn that has been heaped upon this second highest office in the land, 14 of its alumni have gone on to become presidents; and every four years there recurs a mad scramble in both major political parties to secure the number two spot on the national ticket. Every quadrennial since 1976, the vice presidential contest has enjoyed its own national debate; usually sandwiched between the first and second of three debates between the nominees at the top of their party’s tickets.
This year is no different. The current vice president, former Senator Joe Biden, who debated Republican nominee Sarah Palin four years ago, had to endure weeks of speculation that he would be jettisoned for a second four-year term in favor of Hillary Clinton. Biden eventually emerged for a repeat. On the Republican side of the aisle, eventual nominee Mitt Romney and his advisors considered a lengthy dance card of possible running mates, before deciding on Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan shortly before the start of the GOP convention in Tampa.
Biden and Ryan are set to go the distance in a vice presidential debate tomorrow night at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. While vice presidential debates, like junior proms, never quite capture the excitement of the real thing, they have from time to time seriously wounded participants.
The first three vice presidential debates, in 1976, 1980 and 1984 quickly faded into the mist that surrounds most candidacies for that office. However, the 1988 bout between Democrat Lloyd Bentsen and Republican Dan Quayle – in which Bentsen belittled his opponent by asserting he was “no Jack Kennedy” – provided history’s first truly memorable one-liner birthed in a vice presidential debate. Bentsen’s condescending jab, and Quayle’s tepid response helped cement the latter’s reputation as an ineffective leader. Whether deserved or not., the incident hung over Quayle throughout his four-year tenure as vice president and his unsuccessful run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000.
Despite the lasting impact of Bentsen’s verbal decimation of Quayle in that 1988 debate, Bentsen and his running mate, Michael Dukakis, were overwhelmed in both the popular and electoral vote the next month.
Four years later, the vice presidential debate had far less lasting impact. The 1992 cycle is perhaps best remembered as the last time third-party or independent candidates were permitted by the two major parties to participate in the debates. Independent candidate Ross Perot fared well in his debates against incumbent George H.W. Bush and the eventual winner, Bill Clinton. However, Perot’s running made, retired Navy Admiral and Medal of Honor winner James Stockdale, fared decidedly less well. Stockdale was so painfully and obviously in over his head during his debate with Al Gore and Quayle, that his “15 minutes of fame” on October 13, 1992 did little more than propel him from obscurity to oblivion.
The most recent vice presidential debate – between Biden and Palin in 2008 – is best known for its lack of substance (the word “Constitution” was used only once, and then only in passing). The most memorable exchange was Palin’s opening gambit to call her Democrat opponent “Joe.” The debate never really progressed beyond that.
It is not likely the upcoming Biden-Ryan bout will suffer the same fate as these predecessors. Both candidates are energetic and experienced public speakers. While Ryan is clearly the younger of the two, Biden has been successful in projecting an image of energy and vitality. And, even though Ryan often is labeled a “policy wonk” because of his well-known love for and understanding of complex economic and budgetary programs, he has consistently demonstrated an ability to reach out to voters from across the demographic and educational spectra.
Biden has never been confused with being an intellectual or a “wonk.” Still, when not tripping over an ill-timed or poorly-considered one-liner, the Vice President has exhibited remarkable staying power over a lengthy career, and still carries strong appeal with traditional Democratic Party voter blocs.
The real difference in this vice presidential debate, however, will be the deep reservoir of Ryan’s knowledge of domestic budgetary, tax and entitlement programs; versus Biden’s broad but shallow familiarity with federal policies and programs. Importantly, Biden’s words often outpace his thoughts – a defect not exhibited by Ryan.
Biden may be an experienced puncher in the ring, but Ryan’s more methodical and strategically-designed style gives him a significant advantage. In the end, while Biden almost certainly will not put his Party’s core constituencies into apoplectic fits like President Obama did with his lackluster performance in the first presidential debate, his shallow grasp of the issues and his cavalier, almost condescending attitude, will prevent him from reaching those all-important undecided voters. Undecided and independent voters are much more likely to be swayed by Ryan’s substance and sincerity.
Advantage – Ryan.