The six most memorable moments in vice presidential debate history

October 9, 2012

Vice President Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan (Wis.) will square off Thursday in their one and only debate of the campaign. Vice presidential debates are opportunities for candidates to vouch for their running mates and slam the opposing ticket. For challengers in particular, the goal is also to appear capable of assuming the job of president. 

Over the years, the VP debates have been fertile ground for memorable one-liners, heated exchanges and important policy disagreements. Below is our list of the six most memorable moments in VP debate history, in reverse chronological order. (Did we miss any? The comments section awaits):

2008: Sarah Palin asks, “Can I call you Joe?”

Coming off a rough interview with Katie Couric in which the Alaska governor didn’t come off well, voters were eager to see how Palin would stack up against then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), a political veteran. Her “can I call you Joe?” line from before the debate even began was parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” and her decision at another point to say, “I may not answer the questions the way that either the moderator or you want to hear,” wasn’t ideal, but aside from some rough patches, Palin held it together.

The trouble for her was that Biden did, too. Conscious of the perils of looking like a bully, he kept his attacks measured in this debate, which was the most-watched in VP debate history.

2004: Dick Cheney tells John Edwards: “The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight”; Edwards brings up Cheney’s daughter

Cheney immediately sought to take some of the sheen off of Edwards, then a rising Democratic star. And the incumbent vice president held his own during the debate, in which he immediately went on offense, casting Edwards as simply a recent arrival. “The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight,” he said.

Later in the debate, after Cheney explained his support for the Bush administration’s position on a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, Edwards brought up Cheney’s daughter, who is a lesbian. Cheney’s response was curt: “Well, Gwen, let me simply thank the senator for the kind words he said about my family and our daughter. I appreciate that very much.”

“That’s it?” asked moderator Gwen Ifill? “That’s it,” replied Cheney. (A clip of the exchange, via C-SPAN can be found here.)

1992: James Stockdale asks: “Who am I? Why am I here?”

Third-party candidate Ross Perot’s running mate opened his only debate by scoring points for originality. But it didn’t help him make the case that he was a serious contender. In the long run, the decorated Vietnam War veteran’s one-liner made him the subject of jokes that undercut his aim of being viewed in the same category as his Democratic and Republican counterparts.

1988: Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle: “You’re no Jack Kennedy”

This is arguably the most memorable one-liner in vice presidential debate history. Quayle was defending his experience, pointing out that he had “as much experience as Jack Kennedy did, when he sought the presidency.” Bentsen sternly replied: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Quayle responded: “That was really uncalled for, Senator.”

1984: Geraldine Ferraro slams George H.W. Bush’s “patronizing attitude”

Ferraro made history by becoming the first woman to run for vice president. She also etched her debate performance in the history books when she rebutted a Bush attack on foreign policy with a sharp elbow of her own. “Let me help you with the difference, Ms. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon.” Ferraro responded: “I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.”

1976: Bob Dole on “Democrat wars,” Walter Mondale's “hatchet man” comment

When asked about then-President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, Dole, the GOP nominee, responded that it “is not a very good issue” any more than wars, like the ones in Vietnam or Korea. He then pivoted to this line: “If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it’d be about 1.6 million Americans – enough to fill up the city of Detroit.”  Mondale responded: “Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man."

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Aaron Blake · October 9, 2012