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Guest Commentary: Wanted: More Vice Presidential Debates

Oct 26, 2008  •  Post A Comment

According to Nielsen ratings, the last of the three presidential debates between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama on Oct. 15 was watched by 56.5 million viewers. That was down from the previous week’s 63.2 million viewers but up from the first debate’s 52.4 million viewers.
It was still no small audience, but let’s remember that the vice presidential debate between Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Joe Biden drew a whopping 69.9 million viewers.
During their final presidential debate, Sen. McCain complained bitterly that Sen. Obama turned down his offer to curtail campaign advertising and substitute 10 town hall-style meetings. Any sane person could only reply: God bless you, Sen. Obama, for saving us from that.
Like most presidential debates, this year’s yak contests were flat and predictable—the product of our new, seemingly endless political season. The Republican tried to sound like a maverick Democrat and the Democrat did his best to play the boring moderate Republican.
Blows were exchanged, but not really. It was the adult equivalent of two 9-year-olds pummeling each other with Nerf bats.
What made the vice presidential debate so popular? Novelty had something to do with it. On the campaign trail, Sen. Obama complained that he had become so overexposed he made “Paris Hilton look like a recluse,” but that wasn’t at all true of the governor of Alaska. Gov. Palin is a new and exotic animal to most Americans. And while it’s true that Sen. Biden has been around the block, the Delaware Democrat remains one of the most unintentionally entertaining orators of our time.
Real conflict couldn’t have hurt ratings. Gov. Palin sounded like a Minnesota mom who had a very dog-eared copy of “The Prince” waiting on her nightstand back home. Sen. Biden, God love him, twice said that Sen. McCain refused to meet with the president of Spain.
Both veep candidates used every tool in their arsenal, from cheap shots to tears to flattery to winks, to do damage to the other campaign. Gov. Palin, a foreign policy innocent, went up against the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and more than held her own. The wince on Sen. Biden’s face after she charged that Obama’s foreign policy amounted to a “white flag of surrender in Iraq” showed just how much that smarted.
Some were surprised that this vice presidential debate was so well watched, but they shouldn’t have been. America’s presidential debates tend to be boringly bipartisan, largely low-calorie affairs. They turn on little things like Al Gore’s sighing or George H.W. Bush checking his watch. The VP contests have consistently produced much more memorable results.
The “deer in the headlights moment,” from the debate between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle—Mr. Quayle paused, wild-eyed, after Mr. Bentsen told him that he was “no Jack Kennedy”—is one for the ages.
Bob Dole’s jousting with Bill Clinton in 1996 was forgettable. Mr. Dole’s performance in the 1976 vice presidential back-and-forth, in which he referred to World War II, Korea and Vietnam as “Democrat wars,” will live in infamy.
In 2000 and again in 2004, Dick Cheney provided future students of political rhetoric with case studies in how to calmly eviscerate your opponent while a good Nielsen slice of the world is watching. And who can forget Jack Kemp chalking up Roberto Alomar’s infamous spitting-on-an-umpire incident to a lack of “hope, growth and opportunity”?
More, please. Going forward we should have several vice presidential debates and perhaps fewer presidential ones. That’s certainly what the public appears to be clamoring for. And who knows? The networks might even take to this idea, because the office of the vice presidency is not so elevated that you couldn’t have commercial breaks.
This proposal would work well for a number of reasons, high and low. Granted, the personalities who usually become vice president are a better fit for our reality TV culture than those who get the presidential nods. They’ve also consistently managed to produce better debates—truer contests of ideas—than their top-of-the-ticket running mates.
There’s also one really high-minded reason to have more vice presidential debates. Fully 14 of our 43 presidents were once vice president. So whoever gets elected at the bottom of the ticket has about a 1-in-3 shot at occupying the White House. Given those odds, don’t you think we should take the time to get to know our vice presidents a little better?
Jeremy Lott is author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.”

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