Breaking trend, VP debate takes the spotlight
Fought out between Democrat Walter Mondale and Republican Bob Dole, the first vice presidential debate in 1976 was held much in the same format as a presidential debate, covering the same issues the presidential candidates had discussed in three previous debates.
Though the debates have been held regularly since, their style has changed.
Because the vice presidential debate risks rehashing the issues covered in the presidential debates, the vice presidential debates often focus on rhetoric, opinion and verbal attack—especially when the vice presidential candidate’s remarks are not directly linked to the presidential candidate’s image.
“Vice presidents have been both the attack and support dog at the top of the ticket,” Assistant Professor of Political Science Andrew Rehfeld said.
Perhaps one of the greatest moments in debate history occurred in the vice presidential debate of 1988. During the debate, Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen called into question the experience of the younger Republican vice presidential candidate, Dan Quayle.
Bentsen also severely criticized Quayle’s lack of experience after the Republican candidate compared himself to former President John F. Kennedy.
“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” Bensten replied.
However, incidents such as these tend to be the exceptions to the rule, as the emphasis in the election remains on the presidential candidates.
This year, however, the vice presidential debate will be watched much more closely. According to Steve Givens, associate vice chancellor and vice chair of the Vice Presidential Debate Steering Committee, the number of viewers of the vice presidential debate is usually about the same as that of the second and third presidential debates.
Others, however, believe the media attention around Biden and Palin will drive up viewership. Rehfeld predicted that this vice presidential debate will have as large an audience as the presidential debates.
Although they are on the same ticket, McCain and Palin disagree over several of the more controversial issues, such as abortion. Palin opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, while McCain would permit such exceptions.
Conversely, some see Biden as a natural choice for the Obama campaign.
“Biden seems to be a complement to [the presidential candidate],” Rehfeld said. “There are no obvious downsides.”
Palin, by contrast, was for some a highly controversial pick who has “generated a huge amount of excitement and disdain,” according to Rehfeld.
“This year the Republicans have a two-for in Sarah Palin in that the vice presidency for them is much more salient because of McCain’s age. [The debate highlights] the general difference between presidential and vice presidential candidates,” he said.
Such a difference was also apparent in the 1980 debates, when George Bush had to explain why he was supporting Reagan after criticizing his “voodoo economics” in the primary season.
“Most of the time, there’s not so much of a pragmatic disjuncture between the two,” Rehfeld said.
“There could be more interest this time because of who the players are,” Givens said.
Givens, who chaired the 2000 and 2004 presidential debate committees, felt that the planning has in fact been much the same as for a presidential debate.
“From our standpoint, as the hosts of this thing, there is absolutely no difference,” Givens said.