Vice presidential debates may not mean much in the long run — people vote for presidents, after all — but they tend to produce the most memorable moments.
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“Democrat wars” …”Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” …”Who am I? Why am I here?” — All oft-echoed lines delivered during vice presidential debates.
Since their beginning in the 1976 election, vice presidential debates have featured future presidential nominees (Bob Dole, Walter Mondale and Al Gore), but only one future president (George H.W. Bush).
They have also spotlighted the first two women on national political tickets, Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Republican Sarah Palin in 2008.
As Vice President Biden and Republican Paul Ryan prepare to try and make their own history on Thursday night, let’s take a look at the previous contests.
1976 — The first veep contest took place Oct. 15 in Houston, as Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s running mate, took on President Gerald Ford’s political partner, Bob Dole.
The most memorable exchange came when Dole blamed the Democratic Party for global conflicts: “All Democrat wars, all in this century.”.
Mondale responded by saying, “Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man.”.
Carter and Mondale won the election, barely.
1980 — No vice presidential debate this year; aides to President Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan had trouble agreeing to a format, and there was only one debate between the presidential candidates themselves.
Reagan was seen as winning that debate, and definitely won the election.
1984 — This Oct. 11 contest in Philadelphia featured two historic participants: A future Republican president, incumbent Vice President George H.W. Bush, and Democratic challenger Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman on a national ticket.
Gender issues seemed to flare during the debate when Bush said, “let me help you with the difference, Ms. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon.”.
Responded Ferraro: “I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.”.
Perhaps the most memorable moment came after the debate, as Bush was caught on an open mike saying he “tried to kick a little ass.”.
Other observers awarded the debate to Ferraro, though Bush and President Reagan easily won second terms.
1988 — Did this Oct. 5 vice presidential showdown at Creighton University in Omaha produce the most famous political put-down in history?
When George H.W. Bush’s running mate Dan Quayle pointed out he had nearly as much congressional experience as John F. Kennedy, Democratic candidate Lloyd Bentsen pounced.
Said the Michael Dukakis running mate to Quayle: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. … Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”.
Not that it mattered much: Bush and Quayle easily won the election.
1992 — The only three-person vice presidential debate in history, and one best remembered for the third man: Ross Perot’s running mate James Stockdale.
Flanked by GOP Vice President Quayle and Democratic challenger Al Gore, the retired admiral opened with a much-parodied line: “Who am I? Why am I here?”.
Stockdale, who has also had trouble with his hearing aide that long night in Atlanta, took a pounding after the debate, including a merciless parody by comedian Phil Hartman on Saturday Night Live.
Nearly all of it was unfair.
An author and a scholar, a Vietnam prisoner of war, the late Admiral Stockdale was and is revered by many veterans — he just wasn’t a politician, and he was put in an impossible situation.
Perot had tapped Stockdale as a place-holder to accommodate states that required a running mate for ballot qualification. When Perot was unable to attract a better known person to his ticket, Stockdale remained — and basically got fed to political lions.
Note, however, that Stockdale fired off one of the best lines of the night, one that still resonates today. After of the many arguments between Gore and Quayle, Stockdale said: “I think America is seeing right now the reason this nation is in gridlock.”.
Gore and his running mate, Bill Clinton, won the election.
1996 -The match between incumbent Al Gore and Bob Dole’s running mate Jack Kemp proved to be the least distinguished of the vice presidential debates.
Clinton and Gore glided to re-election.
2000 — As George W. Bush run against Gore for the presidency, Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman met in an Oct. 5 debate notable in part for its small town setting: Centre College in Danville, Ky., Site of Thursday’s showdown between Biden and Ryan.
The Cheney-Lieberman clash is more notable in retrospect.
Eight years later, Lieberman would again be considered for the vice presidential slot — by a Republican, John McCain.
Cheney, meanwhile, went on to become maybe the most powerful vice president in history after George W. Bush’s election.
2004 — This Oct. 5 battle in Cleveland between Cheney and Democratic challenger John Edwards featured a notable Cheney line about the experience of Edwards, a first-term senator.
“The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight,”‘ Cheney said.
The Cheney-Edwards set-to is also memorable in terms of future events.
Cheney’s legacy will long be a source of debate.
Edwards sought the vice presidency four years before the sex scandal that gutted his career and reputation.
Cheney and Bush wound up winning a second term.
2008 — Perhaps the most anticipated debate in political history, certainly among vice presidential contests.
The fascination with the suddenly famous Sarah Palin — going up against veteran Biden — drew some 70 million television viewers, the largest audience ever for a vice presidential debate.
“Can I call you Joe?” Asked the first-term Alaska governor during the opening handshake.
Palin and Biden both did well in their Oct. 5 showdown in St. Louis, and their efforts had little effect on the presidential race.
Democrats Barack Obama and Biden handily defeated John McCain and Palin on Election Day.