WASHINGTON ― After 16 months of the political equivalent of Burning Man, voters will likely get a night at the bingo hall Tuesday when the two vice presidential candidates debate in what many expect to be a drowsy affair.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) represent perhaps the blandest pair of veep candidates in a generation. Neither is well-known to voters, and both men have folksy, ho-hum dispositions that make them easy to overlook in the current political climate. But their meeting in Farmville, Virginia, is still a matter of interest, and not just because their running mates aren’t exactly the picture of youth (one recently had a bout of pneumonia, and the other is an overweight 70-year-old man clearly suffering from sleep deprivation).
Vice presidential debates, by definition, are a second-string event. And they’re always scheduled between presidential debates, which tend to overshadow them. But they can affect an election just the same.
Sens. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) and Bob Dole (R-Kan.) faced off in the very first vice presidential debate during the 1976 campaign between Democrat Jimmy Carter and incumbent president Gerald Ford, a Republican. During the debate, Dole blamed all the wars of the 20th century on Democrats, prompting a famous burn from Mondale.
“Sen. Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight,” Mondale said. “Does he really mean to suggest to the American people that there was a partisan difference over our involvement in the war to fight Nazi Germany?”
Joel Goldstein, a St. Louis University law professor who recently published a book on the vice presidency, said the “hatchet man” moment made Mondale an asset to the ultimately victorious Carter campaign.
“It added to Carter’s vote, particularly in states where Mondale spent a lot of time,” Goldstein said. “It was a close election and it made a difference.”
Dole, himself a decorated World War II veteran, later said he didn’t think the debate had any effect on the election, though he did regret parts of his performance.
“When I indicated ‘Democratic wars,’ I think that hurt us for at least a couple of weeks, and probably should have said something else,” Dole told Jim Lehrer in 1999.
The 2000 vice presidential debate between Republican Dick Cheney and then-Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) may be more analogous to the Pence-Kaine matchup, at least to the extent that Pence is a sensible counterbalance to his less-polished running mate. The Cheney-Lieberman debate is remembered for its civil tone, and Goldstein suspects it may have helped the Bush-Cheney ticket.
“Cheney presented himself as a figure of gravitas and someone who could help an inexperienced governor of Texas,” Goldstein said. “I think it was helpful to the Republicans.”
In some ways, debate prep for a vice presidential candidate is harder than it is for the person at the top of the ticket. Not only does the VP candidate have less time to prepare ― since, after all, they are appointed to the ticket only shortly before the convention ― but they also have to defend both their own positions and the positions and statements of their running mate.
The would-be veep thus has to demonstrate to voters that they’d be capable of assuming the top job, while at the same time engaging in the type of mudslinging that could make them seem unpresidential. It’s a balancing act, and in most instances, the main priority is simply to do no harm ― a political version of the Hippocratic oath. That was Joe Biden’s directive in 2008, when the then-senator from Delaware faced off against then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R).
Anita Dunn, a longtime Democratic operative who helped with debate prep for that evening, recalls wanting to help Biden avoid seeming like a bully.
“We just wanted to make sure he was prepared for her to not know the details of issues [and for him] to not sound like a senator for the past 30 years and to avoid explaining in Washington-language issues,” Dunn said in an email.
But when a campaign is losing ground in the polls, the vice presidential nominee is sometimes asked to reset the election for the rest of the ticket. Four years after he had to come off as calm, caring and competent, Biden was asked to play a more aggressive role. During the 2012 veep debates, he laughed dismissively while Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) spoke. “With all due respect,” Biden told his opponent at one point, “that’s a bunch of malarkey.”
“Before the first debate we were preparing for him to be aggressive but we weren’t ready for the over-the-top antics that you saw. And that was squarely because the Obama campaign knew they had to respond to the drubbing they took in the first debate,” recalled Michael Steel, a Republican operative who helped prepare Ryan for that debate (and who’s not to be confused with Michael Steele). “We expected Vice President Biden to be Joe Biden. But in the wake of that first debate he kind of turned it up to 11.”
For Pence, a man who has forsworn negative ads and built his reputation on Christian conservatism, playing the kind of pugilistic role that Biden assumed in 2012 might prove to be a challenge. But it’s the challenge he bears, with the Trump campaign still reeling from a disastrous first debate.
With Kaine, the objective ― beyond simply demonstrating his competence on the national stage ― is less clear. Democrats expect him to continue putting the spotlight on Donald Trump’s blemishes, defend Hillary Clinton from the inevitable attacks and leave the stage unscathed.
It will be tricky. It could produce drama. But it also could very well be forgettable.
“Sometimes they are important, sometimes they aren’t,” Dunn wrote. “I respectably submit that this year, they are unimportant! But the general VP rule applies ― no unforced errors!”