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

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