Menus Subscribe Search

What Joe Biden and Paul Ryan Can Learn From the History Books

• October 11, 2012 • 9:35 AM

University of Washington historian Margaret O’Mara’s advice: be boring.

Do you remember anything about the vice-presidential debate in 1996?

Al Gore?

Jack Kemp?


Don’t worry. You’re not alone.

“I can’t remember a single darn thing about it,” says Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington. “It was singularly unmemorable.”

And O’Mara should probably know that debate. This month, the history prof, who teaches courses in partisan politics, has been presenting a series of lectures in Seattle called “Pivotal Tuesdays,” in which she examines presidential campaigns by looking at four elections that she believes were turning points in American policy, culture and debate—those from 1912, 1932, 1968, and 1992.

The problem, she says, is that vice presidential debates are usually pretty forgettable. They’ve only been around since 1976, when Bob Dole faced Walter Mondale. And they rarely figure in the outcome of the race.

“Those who have looked at the data [on vice-presidential debates] as a whole have decided it doesn’t really matter,” she says. “What the vice presidential debates do, in a more pronounced degree than presidential ones, they reinforce a narrative. They really don’t hold as much promise for truly disrupting a narrative. They become these moments that feed into preconceived ideas about the candidates.”

But there’s another factor, too. “Debates that have blurred, that we don’t remember very much,” she says, evoking Gore/Kemp, “are the ones where they were more evenly matched.”

That wasn’t the case at what is probably the most memorable vice presidential debate—the one between four-term Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen and young Congressman Dan Quayle, in 1988. The latter’s comparison of his experience in Congress to that of John F. Kennedy elicited from Bentsen one of American debate’s greatest zingers: “I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

O’Mara says things can get interesting when the power dynamic between the two candidates is unbalanced, as in the Bentsen/Quayle debate, or when George H.W. Bush had to debate Geraldine Ferraro—egads! a woman!—four years earlier.

The candidate who is seemingly in the power position “has to really watch their Ps and Qs,” says O’Mara. “They just can’t get that aggressive, because it comes off really badly.”

That could make for some fireworks, then, when Joe Biden faces off against Paul Ryan tonight. Biden served in the Senate for 36 years before becoming vice-president (and he’s known for his rhetorical gaffes), while Paul Ryan has just 13 years in Congress (only one more than Quayle had in 1988).

But O’Mara points to the vice-president’s strong performance in the 2008 debate.

“Biden acquitted himself well with Sarah Palin,” she says. “His manner and his bluster overshadow the fact that he knows his stuff. … He’s a good debater, he’s a fierce campaigner, he has a healthy understanding of the degree to which he can help or hurt the campaign.”

And Ryan’s no pushover, she says.

“He’s a really, really smart guy, too. And he also has this incredibly powerful personality, and he’s extremely persuasive. I’m really curious how he comes across on TV and how he’s able to connect with people through the camera.”

(Anecdotally, O’Mara mentions that Ryan once served her tortillas when he was waiting tables at a restaurant on Capitol Hill: “He has very intense, piercing eyes.”)

The prof has some advice for both sides.

For Biden:

“Biden should learn from Lloyd Bentsen. I hope he watches that tape again. [Bentsen] did the best job of instilling confidence, that he knew what he was doing, that he was substantive, trustworthy, that Kemp was a nice guy but he was a lightweight, that he wasn’t up for the job. [Biden] needs to get people thinking that the guy standing on the stage next to him is not up to the job that he’s been doing for four years, by establishing the administration’s record on foreign policy, which he speaks so eloquently about. … Ryan must be getting the briefing of his life on foreign policy.”

For Ryan:

“He needs to channel maybe George H.W. Bush. There were moments of him as a debater, like the 1992 debate, where he really held his own on that range of issues. … What Romney succeeded at [last week] was taking the extremism out of his campaign and making himself seem like this reasonable fellow. Ryan needs to do the same thing: ‘This is a ticket that’s maintaining mainstream American interests, I’m not taking away Grandma’s Social Security.’ Biden’s going to be much more ready with the trigger than the president was last week. Ryan needs to make people really like him.”

But for both candidates, O’Mara adds a little historical perspective.

“At the end of the day,” she says, “both campaigns need to remember that what happens will likely not have an effect on what happens November 6.”

Lloyd Bentsen may have had the night’s best zinger in 1988, but he and Michael Dukakis lost in a landslide.

Joel Smith
Joel Smith is a web producer at Pacific Standard. His previous work includes seven years as a staff writer and media editor at the Pacific Northwest Inlander, the alternative weekly in Spokane, Washington.

More From Joel Smith

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 1 • 4:00 PM

The Gaps in Federal Law That Are Making It Easy for Lenders to Sue Soldiers

Courts are required to appoint attorneys for service members if they are sued and can’t appear. But the law says little about what those lawyers must do. Some companies have taken advantage.

August 1 • 2:22 PM

Warmer Parenting Makes Antisocial Toddlers More Empathetic

Loving care may be the best antidote to callous behavior in young children.

August 1 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Health Insurance Exchange Remains Surprisingly Active

New federal data, obtained by ProPublica under the Freedom of Information Act, shows nearly one million insurance transactions since mid-April.

August 1 • 6:00 AM

The Idea of Racial Hierarchy Remains Entrenched in Americans’ Psyches

New research finds white faces are most closely associated with positive thoughts and feelings.

August 1 • 4:00 AM

How and Why Does the Social Become Biological?

To get closer to an answer, it’s helpful to look at two things we’ve taught ourselves over time: reading and math.

July 31 • 4:00 PM

Thank You for Your Service: How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.

July 31 • 2:00 PM

A New York State of Fracking

Court cases. A governor’s moratorium. Pending health study. A quick guide to the state of fracking in New York.

July 31 • 11:17 AM

How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but Renewables

We don’t need fossil fuels.

July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.

July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.

July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.

July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.

July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.

July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.

July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.

July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.

July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.

July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.

July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.

July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.

Follow us

Subscribe Now

Warmer Parenting Makes Antisocial Toddlers More Empathetic

Loving care may be the best antidote to callous behavior in young children.

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.