Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence meet Tuesday night in this year’s only vice-presidential debate. In 40 years of such contests, there might never have been a matchup between the No. 2’s on the ticket that potentially offered more while promising less.
Less, because neither candidate is very well known, all that charismatic or a rabble-rouser. To make a comparison appropriate for their era, they are more Smothers Brothers than Simon & Garfunkel. VP candidates often are attack-dog surrogates for the standard bearers, sometimes “going there” when the top of the ticket takes the high ground and holds back.
Yeah ... not this year.
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Pence and Kaine both are white baby boomers. Both claim a strong religious faith. Both have extended careers in government. Neither one is flashy, neither was an out-of-left-field choice for the ticket, and neither has dropped a major gaffe on the campaign trail. Both represent the more conservative wings of their respective parties.
But don’t change the channel. Low-key doesn’t mean low energy, or low interest. For those craving substance over hyperbole, this might be your best bet. Here are some things to keep in mind as you watch. And you really should.
1. What should viewers expect
Don’t count on the VP debate to be a game changer — they rarely are, even when they do feature lively exchanges. But do count on more civility and decorum, more policy discussion, and more measured attacks on the opposition’s promises, not personalities. There won’t be a knock-out blow here, but there will be a lot more substance.
2. What about strategy?
It’s not about them. For Donald Trump supporters unnerved by their candidate’s volatility, Pence’s job is to make them feel safer, filtering and tempering some of Trump’s more outlandish positions and statements.
But Pence is no mild-mannered apologist — he describes himself as a “Rush Limbaugh on decaf,” not Ambien — and he will surely go after Hillary Clinton for her malleable positions on trade, not to mention subjects like the Benghazi embassy attack, the Clinton Foundation and her use of private e-mail server as secretary of state.
Kaine will attack as well, and arguably he’s got more ammunition, especially given Trump’s undeniably awful week following the Sept. 26 presidential debate. Kaine’s easy-going persona and casual delivery might make those attacks seem stealthy and understated. Arguably, overall he has an easier task compared to Pence: Ideologically, he and his running mate are a much tighter fit than Pence and Trump.
3. Will someone make a gaffe?
Don’t expect one. Just as with physicians, vice presidential candidates are sworn above all to do no harm. Neither candidate has tripped up noticeably in the race, and both have prepared thoroughly and methodically for this meeting. Pence has practiced with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker standing in for Kaine. Kaine’s practice opponent has been Robert Barnett, a Washington lawyer who’s played the role for Democratic candidates going back to the 1980s.
4. What’s memorable about previous matchups?
Plenty, as it turns out. There have been nine prior televised vice presidential debates, dating to 1976. Highlights:
▪ In 1976, Republican Robert Dole, facing Democrat Walter Mondale, said all global conflicts of the 20th century were “Democratic wars.” Mondale called him a “hatchet man.”
▪ 1984: “Mansplaining,” anyone? After no VP debate in 1980, George H.W. Bush flashed the gender card against the first-ever female VP candidate, Geraldine Ferraro. “Let me help you with the difference,” he said, regarding a distinction in Middle East politics. She called out his “patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.”
▪ 1988: The most ferocious zinger in debate history came when Democrat Lloyd Bentsen called out Republican Dan Quayle for comparing his Congressional experience to John F. Kennedy’s. Bentsen, tipped that Quayle might use the reference, told him: “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”
▪ 1992: In the only three-way VP debate, retired Navy Adm. James Stockdale, a former Vietnam POW and Medal of Honor recipient running with Independent Ross Perot, became a living parody by asking, “Who am I? Why am I here?” A rhetorical question that wasn’t.
▪ 2008: After fairly undramatic VP debates in a row in 1996, 2000 and 2004, the match-up between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin became the most-watched VP debate ever, drawing more viewers than the presidential debates. “Can I call you Joe?” Palin asked Biden at the outset, setting up her later “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” soundbite when Biden talked about how Democrats would help the middle class.
5. Still not convinced? Well, you might be watching a future president
For one, much has been said in this campaign regarding Trump’s and Clinton’s ages and health. Even if you dial down the ageism and hyperbole a notch, there’s something to be said for getting a good close look at who stands in line for the presidency should either candidate leave office prematurely if elected.
More than that, too, is the changing role of vice presidents. It wasn’t until the 20th century that it became customary for presidential candidates to pick their running mates, and for most of the century they were picked to balance out the ticket, often geographically.
That calculus has changed, as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute has written. At least since 1992, when Bill Clinton chose fellow southerner Al Gore, the emphasis has been on ideological common ground and strategic partnerships.
Gore was given unprecedented levels of responsibility and authority over individual policy areas. Dick Cheney, as George Bush’s vice president, exercised even greater power and authority. And Joe Biden has hardly been limited to presiding over the Senate.
Who knows? One of these two might run for president in his own right in four years, or eight. Watch them Tuesday and you’ll be able to say you knew them when.
Tuesday’s VP debate: What you should know
Time and location: Longwood University, Farmville, Va.; 7 p.m. Mountain time; 90 minutes.
Broadcast: Live on all networks and C-SPAN and PBS.
The participants: Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Republican, is a single-term governor and former six-term congressman. Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Democrat, is a former Virginia governor and Richmond mayor.
Format: Nine 10-minute segments based on questions from the moderator. Each candidate will have two minutes to answer, with follow-up discussion based on the moderator’s questions.
History: The first VP debate was in 1976 between Democrat Walter Mondale and Republican Bob Dole.