Water Man Spouts

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Why the VP Debate Matters

{1} "One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is ‘to be prepared’." – Daniel Quayle.

The debate between Joseph Biden and Sarah Palin promises to be the single most important in our nation’s history. In the past, the Office of the Vice President was considered a relatively bland position to hold. In more recent times, presidential candidates tended to select a VP who was considered competent, and who offered the ticket an advantage in gaining geo-political support on election day.

There have been examples of relatively weak choices of VP candidates on a number of failed tickets in recent history. And Dan Quayle provides an example of an unqualified lightweight actually serving as vice president. Quayle was considered a ball & chain on Bush the Elder by many republicans in 1992, and there was a serious, though quiet, attempt to get Bush to replace him.

Since VP Richard Nixon ran the US intelligence operations in Central and South America during the Eisenhower administration, the OVP has often included an expansion of power. Both Al Gore and Dick Cheney are examples of vice presidents who played significant roles in the past 16 years. It is in this context that we can best examine what is at stake in tomorrow’s debate.

{2} "When I talked to him on the phone yesterday, I called him George rather than Mr. Vice President. But, in public, it’s Mr. Vice President, because that is who he is." – Daniel Quayle.

The focus on the importance of the potential selection of a vice president began with the democratic primaries. Early on, Senator Hillary Clinton was heavily favored to win the nomination, and people from both parties wondered if she would pick Barack Obama as her VP. By the spring of 2008, the contest between Clinton and Obama had changed some perceptions: many democrats hoped for a "unity ticket" that included both candidates, while republicans hoped that Clinton and Obama would destroy one another.

As the democratic nominee, Barack Obama selected Joseph Biden as his running mate. That choice inevitably led to speculation as to whether Obama should have chosen Senator Clinton. While there has been a lot of talk about the dynamics within the democratic party, one thing is clear: the party had several strong, competent candidates for VP.

{3} "I’m going to be a vice president very much like George Bush was. He proved to be a very effective vice president, perhaps the most effective we’ve had in a couple of hundred years." – Daniel Quayle.

When John McCain became the republican nominee, there was a great deal of interest in who he would pick as his running mate. There were significant divides in the republican party, generally between factions that had supported other candidates in their primaries. Like the democrats, they were looking for someone who could unite their base; unlike the democrats, that choice focused on which candidate was least likely to be viewed as weak on a national ticket.

McCain wanted to pick Joe Lieberman, or Tom Ridge, rather than one of the choices the two major republican factions were advocating. Both of these choices were eliminated, because of the recognition that while they were not "weak" in qualifications, either would divide the republican base. As a result, McCain selected Sarah Palin in an obvious attempt to divide the democratic base.

The immediate result was that Palin created interest in the republican ticket. In fact, Palin began to outshine McCain. That was highlighted in her reference to the "Palin-McCain" ticket. But when the public began to become more familiar with Sarah Palin, that glow rapidly faded. The result was that McCain has "suspended" his campaign once, and the public has begun to suspend belief in it, as well.

{4} "I happen to be a Republican president – ah, the vice president." – Daniel Quayle.

The VP debate will be based upon the number three. There are two reasons. First, the public is aware that in US history, one out of three vice presidents goes on to be president.
Second, as always, there are the "three groups": {a} those who always support you; {b} those who always oppose you; and {c} the "undecided," who frequently decide the outcome of elections.

In early September, most polls indicated that the contest was close. Both Obama and McCain had a relatively solid Group A, who appeared unlikely to change positions before election day. But appearances can be deceiving. As republicans became more familiar with Sarah Palin, a number of them became convinced that McCain needed to replace her on the ticket.

It is, however, too late for McCain to exercise that option. Thus, tomorrow night’s VP debate will be aimed at the three largest, often overlapping, segments of undecided voters: independents, some democrats, and women. This debate will show which of the two candidates is more qualified to serve as vice president, and potentially as president. And, just as in the first Obama vs McCain debate, the result will be an important gain for the democratic ticket.


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