“Who am I? Why am I here?” I’ll never forget the first words out of the mouth of Admiral James Stockdale, the then-running mate of Independent Presidential candidate Ross Perot, at the three-way VP debate in 1992. In the wacky battle between incumbent George H.W. Bush, upstart Bill Clinton, and pesky businessman-turned White House wannabe Perot, there was, as there always is, a contest between the aspiring second bananas. Stockdale was a deer in headlights, at one point asking moderator Hal Bruno to repeat a question because his hearing aid was turned off.
And I’ll always remember the VP debate of 1988, when Sen. Lloyd Bentsen dressed down future Vice President Dan Quayle: “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
But outside of those two moments, the VP debates, for me, tend to blend together into a forgettable blur. I can tell you who took part each year, but don’t look for details, unless I have YouTube or Wikipedia nearby.
That is, until 2008. The ratings for the Sarah Palin-Joe Biden showdown four years ago were through the American roof to Canada, then they hung a left through Wasilla, Alaska. 70 million people watched, which was more than any of the regular Presidential debates that year. Of course, we know why. Palin was a political curiosity of the highest degree: half rock-star, half public servant, all-traveling circus. This was no debate. This was a reality show, and we know how the story ultimately ended.
Then there was Thursday night’s get together in Kentucky. Call me crazy, but the whole thing reminded me a lot of 1992. After all, there were three candidates again: Paul Ryan, Biden, and Biden’s laugh. I’m not here to tell you Biden crashed and burned. When he was engaged, he performed well. It was his alter ego who crashed the party. I joked on the air Friday on Charlotte’s Morning News that you could’ve been just as entertained by turning down the volume on the TV and watching Biden’s smirks and gut-busting laughs as you were by the content itself.
The stakes for the 2008 debate were artificially raised. People just wanted to see if Sarah Palin could hack it. The stakes for 2012 were raised for a real-deal, yet very unexpected reason… Obama mailed in the first debate. So while 2008 may have been the most commercial debate in modern history, 2012 may have been the most consequential, as it relates to the actual November election outcome.
51 million people watched Biden-Ryan. Many of them, no doubt, were watching to see if Ryan looked presidential, which he did. Many more of those viewers were watching to see if Biden could make up for Obama’s bad night… without a trademark gaffe. Mission accomplished, except for that third guy in the room. Can you imagine how confused the late James Stockdale would’ve been?