Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine speaks during a campaign rally at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Sept. 13, 2016.
Photo by Paul Sancya/AP

Recent history suggests VP debate will be worth watching

Interest in last week’s presidential debate, pitting Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump in their first joint national showdown, was pretty extraordinary. With roughly 84 million viewers, not including those who tuned in online, the event was the most watched political debate in U.S. history.

Tomorrow night, vice presidential hopefuls Tim Kaine and Mike Pence will face off, and as the New York Times noted, there seems to be quite a bit less buzz.
Voters may be forgiven for barely knowing of it, or allotting it little space on their mental hard drives, because of the incendiary flashes tossed into the race daily from the top of the tickets, especially by Mr. Trump.

The meeting of Mr. Pence, a Republican, and Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, two pensive and little-known nominees, might be the least anticipated vice-presidential debate in 40 years…. Mr. Pence and Mr. Kaine are both white men in their late 50s, with solid governing résumés, but little reputation beyond their home states.
All of this is both true and fair, and it’s not unreasonable to think tomorrow’s night’s event won’t feature a lot of fireworks.

But for what it’s worth, let’s not forget that in recent decades vice presidential debates have been every bit as interesting as the presidential events – and in some cases, more so.

In 1984, for example, George H.W. Bush used a clearly condescending tone towards Geraldine Ferraro, prompting the first woman nominee for national office to call Bush out for his “patronizing attitude.”

Four years later, Lloyd Bentsen, in one of the most memorable debate lines in American history, reminded Dan Quayle, “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”

In 1992, in a line that was widely misunderstood, James Stockdale appeared at a vice presidential debate and asked, “Who am I? Why am I here?”

In 2000, Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman had a lively standoff. In 2008, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden drew more viewers than the presidential debates. In 2012, Biden’s debate against Paul Ryan helped reverse the campaign storyline following President Obama’s listless performance in the first debate against Mitt Romney.

Will tomorrow night be as noteworthy? It’s impossible to know in advance, but recent history suggests there will be a lot to learn when Kaine and Pence meet at Longwood University in Virginia. The Indiana governor, in particular, will no doubt face all kinds of questions about Donald Trump’s many recent difficulties.