The Green Papers
The Green Papers

Does President Obama really need Vice-President Biden
"in there pitching" to offset his own First Debate 'loss'?

by Richard E. Berg-Andersson Staff
Thu 11 Oct 2012

The general consensus- on both sides of the American partisan and ideological divide- is that not only did former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, win the First Presidential Debate last week but that President Barack Obama also so clearly lost. My own scoring had the debate a Romney "win" at 58-56, meaning that the President didn't do all that badly: rather, it was simply that (unfair as this might be) Romney was generally seen (even by some conservative Republicans) as, at best, a 'C' student taking on 'A' student Obama in that first debate and, yet, it was Romney who received a B+ to Obama's B- (which is, in the more typical system of American school grading, just about what my own scoring [based solely on what was said, not how it was said (nor how the speaker might have appeared while so saying it)] seems to have indicated).

Thus, the "underdog" did better than expected in that first Presidential Debate while the "favorite" didn't do as well as he might have been expected to do and so we now have this newer consensus that the President did rather badly and might well need Vice-President Joe Biden to bail him out (if I may even use such a term, given at least one of the economic issues in this Presidential Election cycle) in the Vice-Presidential Debate scheduled for the very evening of the day on which this piece is being posted.

First off, allow me to here revisit the first Presidential Debate itself: putting aside the fact that it was only the first of three Presidential Debates scheduled (and, as I have already opined in my 3 October "preview"- as it were- of that debate, I still think the Foreign Policy issues intended to be the subject of the final debate between President Obama and Governor Romney will have much more of an effect on the outcome of this Presidential Election than it might currently appear [evidently, Mitt Romney himself must think so, too: considering that he has lately (since that first debate with the President) begun a more concerted- where not also concentrated- effort to address many of the very concerns I myself raised about his Foreign Policy positions in that very piece---hmmmmm-- are you reading my Commentaries, Governor? ;-)]) and- as is the case with the Major League Baseball Playoffs now underway- losing the first game of a series does not, in and of itself, mean the loss of the entire series, I found it difficult to reconcile what I myself saw during that debate with what- in many, if not most, cases- was being written about it post mortem!

Purposely, as has ever been my practice since first scoring these debates for this website 12 years ago now, I did not read- nor watch- anything related to that debate until after my own comments (and accompanying scoring) on same had been posted to The Green Papers. A few days ago now, I watched the videotape (yes-- I know, I know-- I still rely on VHS!) I made of that debate (well keeping in mind the line from Woody Allen's early 1970s flick Sleeper that "we believe that, when someone committed a crime against the state, they were forced to watch this" [;-)]), if only to see if I could pick up on the themes I was reading about in the papers, as well as online, about Romney's performance versus Obama's (now that what was said about it by others could no longer influence my own "real time" opinion of it already posted on the Internet).

Sure, President Obama was "professorial"-- in essence, he had to be!-- as none of the economic statistics that could be cited were all that much helpful to him in a debate that was primarily about Domestic Issues (at a time when the most emphasized of these would involve the Economy): Romney here had something of the easier task, for the Republican standard-bearer's basic argument that Obama's policies aren't working (and, further, will not work) were not at all dented by such numbers; the President, on the other hand, had to take more time to explain his own argument that, instead, said policies have started to work and that these same numbers (indicating a "3 steps forward, 1 or 2 steps back"- that is: sluggish, at best- economic recovery) simply show that they haven't yet had time to "kick in"...

but, whichever candidate's argument on this score you- dear reader- might be more willing to accept, I- at least- did not get the sense that the President was "disengaged" or "distracted"; I did think (as I pointed out in my own review of the first Presidential Debate) that the President allowed Romney to hit him with more and more negative data that he was slow to- or even failed to- at least attempt to refute at the time and that this gave the GOP nominee a better chance at "winning" the "rounds" of the debate which dealt with the Economy per se. Meanwhile, Governor Romney was clearly more animated and passionate in presenting what he himself thought and believed than what many, if not most, observers expected (again, he got that 'B+' to President Obama's 'B-') and, in the closing "rounds", the President was clearly on firmer ground than he was in the earlier Economy-based "rounds"...

simply put: nothing I saw and heard (while, this time, purposefully looking at how things were said [something I do not do while watching, and scoring, a debate 'live']) significantly altered my initial impressions gleaned while I was purposefully not paying attention to such things! Romney "won" primarily because he had (or so it was said) nowhere to go but "up"- given the (again, fair or not) low expectations for him: and, when the Republican nominee did- in fact- so "go up", it made the President seem more "down" than he, perhaps, actually was... but this does not at all change the fact that Governor Romney did, in fact, "win" Debate # 1 and for the reasons I myself originally stated!

Second (and more to the overall point of this piece): even if we accept- if only for sake of this particular argument- that President Obama now needs a little help from the "bullpen" in the form of Vice-President Biden besting Congressman Paul Ryan in tonight's one and only Vice-Presidential Debate, is this even a realistic scenario?

Again- I here repeat that which I wrote back on 8 September in the immediate aftermath of the two Major Party National Conventions held over two consecutive weeks: as for the sole Vice-Presidential Debate, I have generally found it to be rather useless [although it is, more often than not, great fun to watch!-- but, considering that vice-presidential candidates are the ones who have become the "designated Attack Dogs" of their respective running mates' campaigns, should such a debate even be held considering that Dogfighting is illegal? ;-)]

But seriously, folks!...

we Americans ever vote for President and not for Vice-President and, as a result, what might occur in a Vice-Presidential Debate has tended to have nowhere near the effect on the outcome of a Presidential Election that the Presidential Debates might have had (and, even here, such an effect of Presidential Debates- either positive or negative- is certainly debatable, amongst Historians as much as it might be amongst Political Scientists!)

I still so well remember the very first Vice-Presidential Debate ever: on Friday evening 15 October 1976 between then- United States Senators Walter "Fritz" Mondale (D-Minnesota) and Robert "Bob" Dole (R-Kansas), the vice-presidential nominees of their own respective Major Parties. I was, back then, still in college- watching these proceedings on the one color television in the so-called "common area" of my dormitory (in fact, the Webmaster of The Green Papers- Tony Roza- happened to be my roommate at the time) and, thus, I had a great interest in all this, at least in part, because 1976 would be the very first Presidential Election in which I myself would cast a vote (I had turned 18 in time to vote in my own State of New Jersey's Primaries re: the Midterm Election back in 1974 but had been too young- still in high school, in fact- to vote in the previous American Presidential Election back in 1972).

During that particular debate, Senator Dole was the more on the attack (which included his making rather snide off-hand remarks, such as "after all, Fritz Mondale will still be in the Senate" [after the next ensuing Presidential Inauguration Day, 20 January 1977, that is]) while, for his part, Senator Mondale seemed overly nervous (his famously nasal Midwestern accent seeming to almost quaver at times while his eyes all too often, and quite incessantly, blinked): after a time, Mondale came to seem more like a scared mouse cornered by an overly aggressive house cat, after which one easily found one's self rooting for the "mouse"!

But if this first debate between National Ticket running mates itself at all harmed Presidential Ambition, it more hurt that of Bob Dole himself than it at all harmed then-President Gerald Ford (for Senator Dole would find himself well shadowed by his "Hatchet Man" image all through his own failed presidential bids over the following two decades: his rather quixotic one of 1980 [fueled only by the happenstance of his having been #2 on the Grand Old Party's National Ticket four years before], his glorious failure to wrest the 1988 GOP nomination from then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and, of course, his even bigger failure to win the Presidency itself at the hands of incumbent President Bill Clinton once he finally won the GOP prize in 1996 [as one conservative pundit so well put it soon after that defeat: "If only it hadn't been Bob Dole asking 'Where's the Outrage?' "]) for President Ford had already "shot himself in the foot" (as it were) with his (in)famous gaffe about there being "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe [under the Ford Administration]" in a Presidential Debate just eight days before (in 1976, there were already two Presidential Debates before the first-ever Vice-Presidential one: and Ford would again meet his ultimately successful challenger, then-former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, in debate one more time exactly a week after the Dole-Mondale "sparring match")...

truth be told, while Ford's own debate gaffe certainly didn't help him, it is so obviously simplistic to ascribe the election of Jimmy Carter as President to this primarily, where not also alone-- while, as for the Dole-Mondale debate, other than its likely impact upon Dole's own political reputation (as already noted above), it seems to have made produced even a "blip" on the 1976 Presidential Election "radar screen".

There was to be no Vice-Presidential Debate in 1980: as in 1976, there was- as yet- no Presidential Debates Commission and, as a result, there was but the strange two-some of Presidential Debates that year (one with Republican Ronald Reagan debating Independent presidential candidate John Anderson [on a Sunday evening in late September: President Carter had refused to participate precisely because Anderson was actually there] and the second [to which Anderson was the one who found himself "uninvited" (although he answered the same questions put to the two Major Party nominees 'live' on a then-still new CNN)] between the incumbent Carter and challenger Reagan [and held only a week before the 1980 Presidential Election itself] that produced both Carter's "talking to [his then-elementary school age daughter] Amy about nuclear war" and Reagan's now-famous "There you go again!" and "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" [a question that, at the time, seemed far more original- hence, much more genuine- when asked than it now seems whenever it might be invoked in more recent election cycles, if only because the remake of a well-known and popular movie is, more usually, not nearly so good as the original! ;-)]).

1984 brought back the Vice-Presidential Debate, which has been institutionalized ever since: in that year, incumbent Vice President George H.W. Bush faced off against (at the time [since I was- by then- living in New York City's Borough of Queens], my) Congresswoman, Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to appear on a Major Party National Ticket and got roundly chided- by many, both within and outside the media- for his apparent 'Don't worry your pretty little head about that!' attitude, but this didn't at all stop Bush from gaining another four years in the Vice-Presidency (itself a "springboard" to his getting to sit in the Oval Office four years thereafter). Likewise, 1988's meeting of the running mates became most famous for Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) upbraiding his fellow Senator, Dan Quayle (R-Indiana), for having dared to compare himself to the late President John Fitzgerald Kennedy ("I knew Jack Kennedy", Bentsen said: "Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. You're no Jack Kennedy!") but this did not at all keep the Hoosier from thereafter becoming Vice-President Dan Quayle! (Besides, to be most fair, Quayle hadn't actually been comparing himself to Jack Kennedy per se: he had merely been answering a question as to whether he might be too young to so be "one heartbeat away" from the Presidency [Quayle was not yet 42 at the time (but a Senator Jack Kennedy had only been 39 when he unsuccessfully sought the Vice-Presidential nomination at an "open" [if only as far as that one issue might be concerned] 1956 Democratic National Convention; the main problem for Senator Quayle was: someone on a Republican National Ticket could- only around a decade and a half after 'Watergate'- still not well bring up Richard Nixon who had first been elected Vice-President at the age of 39!)]-- Quayle happened to be the first 'Baby Boomer' on a Major Party National Ticket [four years later, a Major Party National Ticket consisting only of 'Baby Boomers' would actually be elected President and Vice-President] and it is interesting to here note that- as of this typing, at least- current GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan being only 42 years old hasn't really been all that much of an issue!).

By the way: if nothing else, Bob Dole's approach in 1976 and Lloyd Bentsen's quip in 1988 both show- and in a bipartisan way, too!- what can happen if one becomes much too much the "designated Attack Dog".

1992's version of this now quadrennial 'confab of Veep hopefuls' produced the rather odd scenario of by now-Vice President Quayle and then-Senator Al Gore (D-Tennessee)- the Major Party vice-presidential nominees that year- doing their level best to debate each other while retired Admiral James Stockdale (Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot's running mate [Stockdale was originally a "placeholder" vice-presidential candidate, 'temporarily' joined to Ross Perot's name on the ballot in those States which required a named running mate upon initial filing "by Petition", who ended up as the running mate on that independent 'United We Stand' National Ticket only as a direct result of Perot's own strange presidential campaign- one in which he dropped out in mid-Summer only to reappear as a candidate come the Fall (by the time Perot so jumped back in, it was already too late to substitute someone more-- well-- "vice-presidential"]) seemed distracted and even, at times, wandered away from his own podium (the now-late Stockdale being so remembered by all too many primarily as the quintessential "doddering old man" [though, at the time, he was not yet 69: thus, younger than Ronald Reagan had himself been when first elected President] is especially sad in retrospect [his plaintive "Who am I? Why am I here?" with which he started his own Opening Statement in that debate only serving to make Stockdale the subject of much mockery thereafter], considering that he was a genuine military hero- in fact, a fellow POW of the Vietnam Era with 2008 Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain as well as a Congressional Medal of Honor winner to boot!).

After this, however, the Vice-Presidential Debates have generally proven to not be so-- (ahem!)-- "memorable" (2008's only being noteworthy because of participant Sarah Palin having been the first Republican woman on a National Ticket): indeed, as I now look over my own "real time" notes about the three such confrontations I have already covered for The Green Papers (going back, obviously, to 2000), I see nothing that really stands out anywhere near as much as that which I have already recounted about the earlier history of Vice-Presidential Debates through 1992.

Indeed, I referred to the first Vice-Presidential Debate I ever scored (2000: Cheney vs. Lieberman)- and, thereafter, wrote up for this website- as "A Quiet Little Diversion" and, indeed, that's what these Vice-Presidential Debates have, of late, pretty much turned out to be: but, of course, it yet remains to be seen if tonight's such meeting of the running mates turns out to merely continue this pattern--

or, instead, might well hearken back to what such meetings themselves once were... Again: Stay tuned!

(and, of course, Bring Yer Popcorn!)

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