My Reaction to the 20th Century Vice Presidential Debates (1/2)

These won’t be as in-depth as my write ups for the Presidential or primary debates. There’s just not as much to talk about, and the VP debates have never had a tangible effect on the race, so there’s little room for meta commentary either. But, I’m a sucker for political history and discourse, so I thought I’d take a quick look. I’ll point out which ones are worth checking out, either for entertainment or genuine historical value, and which are completely forgettable.

Like their Presidential counterparts, the VP debates became a cyclical tradition starting in 1976. (While Kennedy and Nixon faced off in 1960, there were no VP debates that year.) There was no VP debate held in 1980 because Carter threw a fit and refused to participate with Anderson (the independent candidate who ended up receiving 6% of the vote) on the stage. This threw off the whole schedule that year and led to the VP debate getting cancelled, which is a damn shame because a three way dynamic would have made for an interesting premise.

Overall, my favorite VP candidate in terms of debate performance is Geraldine Ferraro by far. I love her spirit, I think she handled Bush better than Dukakis would 4 years later, and I love how she paved the way for women even if she seems to be sadly overlooked these days.

Conversely, the worst two have to be Dan Quayle and Stockdale (Ross Perot’s VP nominee). Stockdale’s performance is considered the worst by any candidate in any debate and it’s not hard to see why. Quayle, as usual, makes an ass of himself in both debates we see him in. Bush isn’t quite on their level of substandard, but he comes off as flustered and rude to his opponent, repeatedly calling her “Missus Ferraro” and not “Congresswoman” which I realize is a mouthful, but politicians are always referred to by their titles in this setting. The President is referred to as “the President” or “Mr. President,” Senators and Governors are addressed as such, etc. It was very bad optics for him, especially now in hindsight, to not grant her the same respect.

Just paying attention to the VP’s and ignoring the Presidents for a second…I think my opinions shift a lot more than is the case for the 21 century cycles. Instead of a Clinton blowout, I’d consider 96 a lot closer. Instead of the best option by far, I’d consider the independent ticket in ’92 to be a joke. Instead of basically even, I’d consider the Democrats the clear victor in ’88 and ’84.

Dole v Mondale 1976

Wow, they get opening statements! That’s something that ought to be brought back I say. Lets them get their annoying “thank yous” out of the way, and frame themselves before the debate gets going. It’s nice to get that initial, general insight into their character. In Dole’s opening statement, we see that same asinine “most liberal person in the Senate” attack being used even here, even in the very first cycle of debates!

I can’t help but repeat yet again: it’s an absolute travesty that the debates didn’t become tradition until 1976. Seriously, this has to be the least exciting round of 4 politicians ever assembled. Carter, Ford, Mondale and Dole are all dull as dirt. (Coincidentally, I called all of them the 4 most boring candidates in my summary of the Presidential debates.) It’s by sheer horrible luck that they all be part of this first, dreary cycle, while some of the most fascinating figures of the modern era like Goldwater, McGovern, LBJ and Nixon did not participate in general election debates. (Nixon did in 1960, but I’d love to see a ’72 vintage Nixon debate McGovern.) Not even just the debates, but if you listen to Carter’s, Mondale’s, and Ford’s nomination acceptance speeches, they’re the worst of their respective parties and it’s not even close.

When asked about low voter turnout, I think Mondale raises some good points about Watergate and the government leaving people out to dry, but again, I feel he’s shortchanging McGovern as well and the deleterious effect that had on the electorate. You had there a grassroots candidate rising up against all odds, exactly how democracy is supposed to work, being absolutely quashed by his own party and a disheartening scandal. But in Mondale’s answer here, notice his lack of enthusiasm and obvious forced emotion as he tries to sound angry on the voters’ behalf. This just shows again how unexciting and insincere he is. He can’t convey genuine emotions and instead comes across like a man reading some prepared, focus-grouped statement off of a cue card.

Honestly, you can skip this one. It’s just as dry as its ’76 Presidential counterparts. Two lame candidates, the debate format hadn’t ironed all the kinks out yet, and the topics are pretty out of date to today. You won’t learn good debate strategy, political history or anything else watching this. In fact, no exaggeration, I literally fell asleep during the second half watching this and have no desire to rewatch what I missed.

Bush v Ferraro 1984

Geraldine Ferraro is one of my favorite VP selections of all time. I think she’s what Hillary Clinton should have been. Her speeches and debate with Newt Gingrich in the ’90s were all great. She’s intelligent but also very warm and likable in a way that Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton weren’t. This contest is historic as the first time a woman ever took the podium in a national election debate. Ferraro did very well here. She’s a lot more measured, articulate, and appealing that her opponent. Around 15~16 minutes in, Bush starts yelling and getting defensive when the topic of the poor and minorities come up, culminating with an awkward, flustered answer around 18~19 minutes in. I’d say he made a fool of himself while she managed to look more professional, and in fact the audience applauded her even though that was against the rules. I wish Ferraro had been the nominee for President over Mondale or Dukakis, as she handled Bush better than Dukakis did, and out-competed Mondale’s attempts to beat Regan. The short and sweet of it is, Ferraro held her own against Bush and in my opinion, bested him.

This one is definitely worth checking out both for the historical landmark it is as well as the spirited discussion of policy.

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