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Tradition-not: the Vice Presidential debates

Susan Ohmer | Monday, October 4, 2004

We have become so accustomed to watching presidential debates every four years that it may be hard to believe that, for most of American history, they didn’t exist. In the 19th century, politicians considered it undignified to campaign openly for public office, and instead sent surrogates to present their views to the public. The famous Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates that launched Lincoln’s career took place during the 1858 Illinois Senate race, not during a presidential election. In the 20th century, no debates occurred until the 1948 and 1956 elections, and they involved candidates in the Republican and Democratic primaries, not each party’s final nominees. Not until 1960, with the famous John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon debates, could Americans watch the parties’ formal nominees argue their positions. Everyone knows that the Kennedy-Nixon match-up was the first presidential debate to be televised, but they were also in fact, the first presidential debates in U.S. history.

And they did not establish a trend. The two parties’ nominees wouldn’t debate again for another sixteen years, in part because of Nixon’s experiences in the 1960 encounter. It wasn’t until 1976, when Gerald Ford met Jimmy Carter in an exchange that also involved an infamous remark about Poland that presidential debates reappeared in the election cycle. Since then they’ve become an accepted part of the political process, though candidates renegotiate the terms each time. What we think of as an integral part of our democratic process, then, has a tradition going back about forty years, and not even continuously at that.

The “tradition” of vice presidential debates is even less firmly rooted. The first encounter between the parties’ nominees for this position also occurred in 1976, when Democrat Walter Mondale debated Republican Robert Dole. There were no vice presidential debates in 1980, but they reappeared in 1984, when George H.W. Bush debated Geraldine Ferraro in an encounter that was equally memorable for breaking gender barriers. This tradition of vice presidential debates has existed continuously for only twenty years – the age of many Notre Dame students.

Why should we care about the vice presidential debates? We don’t elect vice-presidents directly, after all; they are attached to the ticket and we don’t have the opportunity to deselect them. Of course, if the president dies in office, they become our next leader, so it’s useful to have a sense of their personalities and beliefs. Ronald Reagan was 73 years old in 1984, so voters may have had a more pressing interest in knowing who could replace him, but age is not an issue in this campaign.

Vice presidents also attract attention because of the extra experience and perspective they add to a ticket. During the 2000 election, George W. Bush presented Dick Cheney as a man whose long experience in government – including a stint as White House Chief of Staff under Ford and Secretary of Defense in his father’s cabinet – would add heft to his administration. Sen. John Kerry chose Sen. John Edwards for similar reasons of balance: to widen his appeal to various demographic groups. Both Kerry and George W. Bush acknowledge that one person can’t do everything and that the vice-president extends and enhances the range of skills a president can offer.

The role of vice president is one that is still being defined. Vice presidents can say things the president can’t, such as when Cheney implied that a vote for Kerry could trigger another terrorist attack. Vice presidents can be warmer, more in touch with the public, a function that Edwards seems to fulfill for Kerry. They can extend a candidate’s political base, as Lyndon Johnson did for Kennedy by appealing to Southern voters. Kennedy nearly lost his party’s nomination because of his support for civil rights, but appointing the Texan Johnson appeased the Democrat’s southern base. They can reassure particular segments of the party that the President shares its views, while he strives to appear more moderate, as Cheney does in speaking to evangelical groups.

The debate tonight between Cheney and Edwards brings together two men of established rhetorical skills and very different political personas. Edwards, the man who worked his way up the socioeconomic ladder and earned his political reputation and millions of dollars as a trial lawyer, vs. Cheney, the consummate government administrator and master of innuendo and suggestion. In contrast to the uneven rhetorical display of last week’s presidential debate, this one promises to be a more equal match of communication skills. Will they move us through emotion, or argue with logic? Will one man lose his temper and reveal a hidden side, or will each remain in command of himself and his words?

Whatever the outcome, we can take pride in knowing that we are helping to continue what is still a relatively new “tradition” in American politics.

Susan Ohmer is a guest columnist and an assistant professor of modern communication for the department of film, television and theatre. She is currently teaching a course on Media and the Presidency, which examines the role of media in the election process. She can be contacted at sohmer@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.