Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

VP debates can kill political careers

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
October 8, 2012 -- Updated 1931 GMT (0331 HKT)
Joe Biden greets Sarah Palin during the 2008 vice presidential debate in St. Louis.
Joe Biden greets Sarah Palin during the 2008 vice presidential debate in St. Louis.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Vice presidential debates don't usually sway outcome of elections
  • He says they can have an outsized influence on careers of the candidates
  • Zelizer: Debates proved harmful to Palin, Edwards, Quayle and Dole

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of the new book "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Thursday's vice presidential debate will not receive nearly as much attention as the battles between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. After all, the debates between the vice presidential candidates are a bit like watching AAA baseball. Right now, most voters are focused on the people running for the highest office in the land.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Nevertheless, vice presidential debates have a colorful history. Although they don't do much to affect the results of the actual campaign, they can have an effect on the future of a candidate's career regardless of whether the ticket wins or loses.

In several cases, promising stars have been badly harmed by their performances, developing public perceptions that proved hard to shake.

Opinion: Romney was hungry, Obama was flat

With Vice President Joe Biden possibly considering a run for the presidency in 2016 and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan widely considered to be one of the most promising stars of the GOP, both men have a lot to lose if their effort on Thursday does not go well.

In 1976, Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kansas, ripped into his opponent on many fronts, but he came off looking nasty and unnecessarily aggressive. Some of his statements were so controversial that they raised questions about whether he was fit to hold the office, particularly because voters were still leery from the nastiness of President Richard Nixon's White House.

During the debate Dole said that "If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit."

Walter Mondale seized on the statement, saying that "Sen. Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man." That phrase stuck, even more than Dole's comments, and for many years Republicans remained skeptical that Dole could be an effective presidential candidate because of this negative image.

Mayor Nutter on the upcoming VP debate
Politics Lite: Prepping for Debates
VP debate likely to be heated
Biden's surprising words on middle class

In 1988, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, running with Michael Dukakis, picked apart Sen. Dan Quayle. The charismatic young conservative from Indiana was a fresh voice in the party, a politician who many observers thought could be a new leader for the GOP down the road. This was why Vice President George H.W. Bush selected him as his running mate.

News: Stakes get higher in upcoming Biden-Ryan debate

When Quayle, who had stumbled through some gaffes early after his announcement, likened himself to President John F. Kennedy, Bentsen fired back: "I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." The zinger played into fears that Quayle was a lightweight who could not handle the obligations of the presidency. While Quayle was on the winning ticket, his image took a big hit as a result of the debate and other events on the campaign trail.

In 2004, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, running with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, also suffered from his encounter with a more experienced candidate, Vice President Dick Cheney. At the time, Edwards was one of the darlings of the Democratic Party, a photogenic senator who spoke emotionally about the issues of poverty and inequality, something that energized the party's base. But his performance in the debate was unsuccessful.

Opinion: Millennials want candidates Talk to us

Cheney dug into Edwards, saying, "The first time I ever met you was when you walked onto the stage tonight," a statement highlighting the accusation that Edwards was more interested in advancing his career than politics and that he had constantly missed votes.

When Edwards brought up Cheney's daughter Mary, who is gay, to challenge his opposition to gay marriage, Cheney came back by saying, "Let me simply thank the senator for the kind words he said about my family and our daughter," ending Edwards' assault on the spot. Edwards' performance left many uncomfortable. The senator looked like a lightweight, and many came away more skeptical about whether he could handle the pressures of the presidency.

The 2008 debate between then-Sen. Joe Biden and Sarah Palin didn't have as many dramatic moments. Still it was harmful to Palin. The Alaska governor entered the debate with low expectations after a series of botched television interviews led voters to question whether she was really qualified to hold higher office.

During the debates, Palin did not do much to impress voters. Her decision to evade certain questions and give vague responses to others continued to fuel discussion as to whether she was out of her league.

What would you ask Biden, Ryan?

Some scratched their head when she asked her opponent, "Can I call you Joe?" At another point she admitted that she "may not answer the questions the way the moderator and you want to hear."

The performance became fodder for "Saturday Night Live" comedians, with Tina Fey playing Palin, constantly winking and talking about being a maverick without any substance. When the segment ends, Fey asks: "Are we not doing the talent portion?" (A reference to Palin having been in the Miss Alaska competition.)

Opinion: Will Big Bird be downsized?

It might be that following the first presidential debate, where Mitt Romney dramatically turned the media narrative in his favor and walked away with a major victory, that interest will be greater than usual in this vice presidential debate, and a decisive victory either way could play some role in the campaign. But the chances are still slim.

Regardless, we do know that poor performances in vice presidential debates can harm the chances for a candidate to run for higher office down the road. Though they will obviously be focused on 2012, both Ryan and Biden will need to be careful not to act in ways that undercut their ability to run for the presidency four years from now.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT