In the presidential election, how important is the vice-presidential pick and the subsequent debate?
Joe Biden has selected Kamala Harris as his running mate, and pundits are speculating about how Republican vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence will fare in the coming debate. As a former prosecutor, Harris is well-known for being able to hold her own.
The debate may make for interesting television viewing, but we don’t need to look too far back in history to study an earlier mismatch on the debate stage.
In 1988, Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen was the running mate of presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Bentsen skewered Senator Dan Quayle (who was running mate to George H.W. Bush). Quayle compared his own Congressional experience to being at least as robust as that of Jack Kennedy. Bentsen responded in his stentorian voice: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”
Bentsen outwitted him in the vice-presidential debate, but Quayle had the last laugh in November. Bush won a landslide victory over Dukakis.
Victory When It Matters
Victory on the debate stage or victory at the polls? We know which matters.
As the debates continue this autumn, we might consider viewing them through an objective lens. It doesn’t really matter who “wins” the debates, but it matters a great deal whom we think would be better prepared to lead the country for the next four years.
The Vice President: Important or Unimportant?
John Adams, our first vice president who served under George Washington 1789-1797), had mixed emotions about the position. He is often quoted for saying:
“My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”
But he also added wisdom: “I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.”
When Has a Vice President Stepped In?
Nine times in history, a vice president has had to replace a sitting president. William Henry Harrison died 31 days after assuming the office of the President in 1841. John Tyler had no choice but to be ready for the number one job.
And Harry Truman (1945-53) stepped in to be vice president to President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his fourth term. He was vice president for just under three months when FDR died. When Harry Truman became president, he did not even know that the U.S. was in the final stages of preparing a nuclear bomb. In his first months in office, he had to become familiar with the Manhattan Project. Ultimately, he decided to drop the bomb on Japan.
When you watch the debates this fall, don’t watch for the most artful debater or clap for the candidate who creates the best sound bite.
Look for the person who seems solid, well-versed in the issues, and capable of good judgment under extreme pressure—the person who might be best prepared to answer that 3 a.m. phone call. Our decision on November 3 will matter a great deal.
When a Vice President Stepped In
Here is the list of vice presidents who stepped in for sitting presidents:
John Tyler (1841-1845) became President when William Harrison died.
Millard Fillmore (1850-1853) became President when Zachary Taylor died.
Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) became President when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885) became President when James Garfield was assassinated.
Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) became President when William McKinley was assassinated.
Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) became President when Warren Harding died.
Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) became President when Franklin D. Roosevelt died.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) became President when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Gerald Ford (1974-1977) took over after Richard Nixon resigned.
Also read “The Story Behind the Presidential Debates.“