Vice-Presidential Debates Replayed (Part 2)

Photographs via Getty Images; Photo-illustration by Bloomberg

Photographs via Getty Images; Photo-illustration by Bloomberg

Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan meet tonight at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, for their only debate, continuing a tradition of one No. 2 encounter every four years.

Our retrospective of previous vice-presidential debates focuses on highlights and post-debate reaction from some of the participants. This second installment focuses on the debates in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008. Also see Our first installment, which covered the debates in 1976, 1984, 1988 and 1992.

1996: The debate between Vice President Al Gore and Republican Jack Kemp, a former NFL quarterback and New York congressman running on a ticket with Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, may have been the tamest of the eight vice-presidential debates held to date. It wasn’t like the donnybrook 1992 debate that included Gore, Dan Quayle and Jim Stockdale.

Like Dole, Kemp declined to use the debate as a forum to criticize President Bill Clinton on ethics. Kemp began the debate by saying he and Dole didn’t think of Clinton and Gore “as our enemy. We see them as our opponents.”  Gore thanked Kemp for his answer, and the famously stiff environmental policy wonk injected a bit of self-deprecating humor.

“I’d like to start by offering you a deal, Jack,” Gore said. “If you won’t use any football stories, I won’t tell any of my warm and humorous stories about chlorofluorocarbon abatement.”

2000: Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, running on a ticket led by Gore, emphasized the prosperity during the eight years of a Clinton-Gore partnership that Lieberman promised to continue. Lieberman noted that Republican opponent Dick Cheney, who became a wealthy executive at Halliburton Co. after leaving political life, also prospered during that time.

“I think if you asked most people in America today that famous question that Ronald Reagan asked, ‘Are you better off today than you were eight years ago?’ Most people would say yes,” Lieberman said. “I’m pleased to see, Dick, from the newspapers that you’re better off than you were eight years ago, too.”

“I can tell you, Joe, the government had absolutely nothing to do with it,” Cheney countered.

2004: The Bush administration’s prosecution of the Iraq War was an early focus of the debate between Vice President Cheney and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, an accomplished trial lawyer who was comfortable slashing the opposition before an audience. After acknowledging moderator Gwen Ifill and audience, Edwards’ first line of the debate was, “Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people” about Iraq?

As in 2000, the candidates were seated at a table rather than standing at separate podiums. This arrangement was demanded by Cheney and his negotiators, according to Northeastern University professor Alan Schroeder’s book, “The Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High Risk TV.”

“We were adamant that we were going to have that debate sitting down,” said former Secretary of State Jim Baker, one of Cheney’s debate negotiators. “The vice president’s not going to stand up and walk around the room with a trial lawyer. We’re going to have that debate seated or we might not even have it.”

2008: There were clear contrasts in appearance, experience and manner between Biden, 65, a 36-year Democratic senator from Delaware, and Sarah Palin, 44, the two-year governor of Alaska selected by Arizona Sen. John McCain for the Republican ticket.

“Can I call you Joe?” Palin asked Biden as they shook hands before the debate. “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” Palin said in response to one Biden answer.

Palin used the word “maverick” six times to emphasize the Republican ticket’s political independence. Biden used the word nine times in one answer to emphasize a point that McCain wasn’t a maverick. Biden mentioned George W. Bush or his administration by name 12 times, underscoring the unpopularity of the Republican president and the Democratic campaign’s strategy of running against Bush.

Moderator Ifill drew audience laughter after she noted that the combatants actually agreed on something — an opposition to same-sex marriage. President Barack Obama, who sets administration policy, reversed his opposition to same-sex marriage earlier this year.

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