If you’re tempted to skip this week’s vice presidential debate because Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump won’t be there, you might want to reconsider.
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republican Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana are amiable fellows who rarely throw a first punch, but don’t hold that against them. Both have had experience in the debate ring and know how to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
People vote for the top of the ticket, but whoever becomes vice president likely will do a lot more than attend the funerals of world leaders. Plus, one of the men onstage at Longwood University on Tuesday night might be president someday. Fourteen veeps have become president, eight after the death of the sitting president.
Vice presidential debates are lower-key affairs than presidential matchups, but over the years the second tier has brought its share of verbal fisticuffs, gaffes and memorable moments.
The dust-up in the 1984 vice presidential debate between Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Geraldine Ferraro is a classic example of “mansplaining.”
“Let me help you with the difference, Ms. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon,” said Bush, then vice president and a former ambassador to China and the United Nations.
The first woman vice presidential nominee and eight-term House member riposted: “Let me first of all say that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.”
Perhaps the most famous VP debate moment ever was four years later, when Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, a courtly and dignified senator from Texas, eviscerated callow Dan Quayle, Republican senator from Indiana.
Quayle, boyish at 41 and perceived by many as unqualified to be vice president, said he had as much congressional experience as Jack Kennedy did when he ran for president.
“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” Bentsen shot back.
Bush and Quayle won the election, but Bentsen went home with the zinger of the year trophy.
In 1992, James Stockdale, running mate of third-party candidate Ross Perot, uttered the seven words that still live in vice presidential debate parody: “Who am I? Why am I here?”
Stockdale was a retired admiral, one of the most highly decorated Navy officers in history. He had spent seven years as a POW in the infamous Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. But he was unknown to most Americans. Sadly, his debate performance made him a figure of fun.
This time, there will be no third-party candidate onstage. Neither the Libertarian nor the Green party met the Commission on Presidential Debates’ criteria for participating in the first presidential and the only vice presidential debate. That’s a shame for the millions of Americans who would like more choices.
In a year in which many voters find the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees scary, debate-watchers may find Kaine and Pence reassuring. They came up through the states and know compromise is necessary.
Pence, after losing one of the nastiest congressional races in Indiana history, once wrote an essay titled, “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner,” in which he stated, “Negative campaigning is wrong.”
Asked how he could square that view with Trump’s campaign style, Pence told Martha Raddatz on ABC’s “This Week”: “Things are a little different here in Indiana than they are in New York City. People talk a little different than they do sometimes about things.”
Raddatz then asked Kaine about Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment when she said some of Trump’s supporters are “irredeemable.” Was that word appropriate?
“That’s not a word I would use. I wouldn’t use it,” Kaine said, although he added, “I think we would be unrealistic to think that some people are going to fundamentally change their view.”
Come January, either Kaine or Pence likely will be the president’s liaison to Congress, playing a key role in setting the policy agenda.
For voters unhappy with Clinton and Trump, this undercard could make the choice more palatable.
Mercer writes from Washington. Email her at email@example.com. ©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.