Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

VP debates can kill political careers

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 3:31 PM EDT, Mon October 8, 2012
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
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT