The 2012 vice-presidential debate might not be a game-changer, but that doesn't mean it won't be entertaining.
- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
Politico posed a tantalizing question earlier this week: With Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney enjoying a post-debate surge in the polls and President Barack Obama seemingly on the ropes for the first time in the 2012 campaign, could Thursday night’s vice-presidential debate between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden actually matter?
Alas, if past elections — and our equally breathless musings about the potential consequence of previous vice-presidential debates — are any guide, we shouldn’t get our hopes up. In a 1996 study of debates between 1984 and 1992, political scientist Thomas Holbrook determined that "there is very little evidence that vice presidential debates do much at all to alter the political landscape" — even in the case of Lloyd Bentsen famously telling challenger Dan Quayle that he was "no Jack Kennedy." In a 2008 survey, Gallup found that while presidential debates may have made the 1976 and 2004 elections more competitive, only in the tight races of 1960 and 2000 did the debates appear to have an impact on the outcome (other academic investigations have reached similar conclusions).
Still, vice presidential debates have produced their share of memorable foreign-policy moments. Here are the top six:
1976: Dole condemns "Democrat wars"
During the race between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Republican vice presidential candidate Bob Dole raised eyebrows by slamming World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War as "Democrat wars" while debating Walter Mondale. "If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it’d be about 1.6 million Americans — enough to fill the city of Detroit," he asserted. The remark didn’t sit well with Mondale, who retorted that "Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight."
The statement "haunted us for a while," Dole later recalled. "People were calling me that night saying ‘boy, what a great job, you won this debate’…. [A]nd the next morning after the press picked this out as a mistake, it suddenly changed." In fact, the controversy surrounding the comment outlasted the campaign. "Bob Dole came across as an ass," columnist Debra Sunders declared when the Republican politician ran for president in 1996.
1984: Bush gets pedantic
The most heated moment in the vice-presidential debate between Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Geraldine Ferraro came when Ferraro, the first female vice-presidential candidate for a major U.S. political party, compared the Iranian hostage crisis to the bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon. "Let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon," Bush began, drawing a fiery rebuttal. "I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy," Ferraro declared. I’ve been a member of Congress for six years."
The testy exchange dominated the analysis of the debate the next day (it didn’t help that Bush was later overheard saying "we tried to kick a little ass last night"). "Did he patronize her?" the Associated Press asked. "That’s the debate about the debate that America may be chewing on for as long as women candidates for national office remain a rarity." Many years afterward, Ferraro said she had used the line reluctantly. "I readily admit I was not an expert on foreign policy but I was knowledgeable and I didn’t need a man who was the vice president of the United States and my opponent turning around and putting me down," she noted.
1992: Quayle makes a ‘3 a.m.’ appeal
We all remember Hillary Clinton’s "3 a.m. phone call" ad questioning Barack Obama’s national security’s credentials during their Democratic primary fight. But George H.W. Bush’s vice president, Dan Quayle, trotted out a similar attack line against Clinton’s husband many years earlier. Staring straight into the camera during a debate against Al Gore and James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s running mate, Quayle declared:
At some time during these next four years there is going to be a crisis — there will be an international crisis. I can’t tell you where it’s going to be, I can’t even tell you the circumstances — but it will happen. We need a president who has the experience, who has been tested, who has the integrity and qualifications to handle the crisis. The president has been tested; the president has the integrity and the character. The choice is yours.
You need to have a president you can trust. Can you really trust Bill Clinton?
Reacting to the sound bite, the New York Times noted that Quayle had highlighted the "question that Bush strategists hope will sway voters their way in these final days" and "used the word ‘trust’ … so often that it started to sound like an incantation."
Quayle’s warning comes at about 06:30 in the clip below. Right afterward, you’ll find an even more famous vice-presidential debate moment: Stockdale beginning his opening statement by asking, "Who am I? Why am I here?" Saturday Night Live had a field day portraying Stockdale — who also asked the moderator to repeat a question because he hadn’t switched on his hearing aid — as a doddering, existentially confused old man. What we often forget are the substantive points that Stockdale made next: that he would approach his office with a unique perspective given his many decades in the Navy and ordeal as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
1996: Kemp advises against bombing before breakfast
During a debate with Al Gore, Republican challenger Jack Kemp chose some novel language to criticize the Clinton administration’s strikes against Iraqi targets after Saddam Hussein’s assault on Kurdish territory in northern Iraq. He argued that U.S. foreign policy should adhere to the Golden Rule — a line Ron Paul echoed in this year’s Republican primary (you can watch the full 1996 debate here):
We should have a foreign policy that’s predicated upon trade, on spreading democracy, by giving people opportunities to trade freely with us, and making sure that everybody recognizes a rule of the Golden Rule, "To do unto others to have them do unto you." Diplomacy first, and don’t bomb before breakfast.
The "don’t bomb before breakfast" admonition angered GOP wonks Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, who warned that the Republican Party’s isolationist posture was dangerous. "[W]ith a Republican opposition singing choruses of ‘Come home, America,’ and ‘Don’t bomb before breakfast,’ the odds of successfully fulfilling our essential role in the world will diminish," they wrote. "I took a lot of heat for it," Kemp mused three years later, "but looking back at [the Clinton administration’s] foreign policy to react against Sudan, or Afghanistan, or northern or southern no-fly zones in Iraq, and now in Kosovo and Bosnia, I was right on target."
2004: Cheney meets Edwards
What made the debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards stand out was how much more confrontational it was than the gentlemanly Cheney-Lieberman snoozefest in 2000. Things got particularly heated when the conversation turned to Iraq, as Edwards accused the vice president of misleading the American people about the costly war and questioned him over government contracts awarded to his former employer, Halliburton. Cheney responded by alleging that Edwards was barely a presence in the Senate, noting that "the first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight." In the clip below, watch Cheney work in the line, "you probably weren’t there to vote for that." After the debate, the press pointed out that Cheney had actually met Edwards several times before the debate.
2008: Palin mispronounces McKiernan
During their much-anticipated matchup, both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin invoked Gen. David McKiernan to argue for their respective Afghan strategies, though neither candidate referred to the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan by (the correct) name. Biden noted that "our commanding general in Afghanistan said the surge principle in Iraq will not work in Afghanistan," while Palin retorted that "McClellan did not say definitively the surge principles would not work in Afghanistan" (instead of correcting her, Biden made another vague reference to "our commanding general"). Palin took heat for the mispronunciation, but it turned out that both candidates were partially right. McKiernan had rejected Iraq comparisons, but called for more troops in Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency.