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
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT