Whatever the real or imagined merits of presidential debates, the merits of vice-presidential debates must surely be somewhat proportional to the importance of the running mates themselves. There have been elections - 1960 famously comes to mind - when a particular running mate made all the difference. As often as not, however, I sometimes suspect that presidential candidates might do just as well (or even better) if they were free to run unencumbered by a vice-presidential running mate.
But, just as the 12th amendment to the constitution has effectively saddled presidential candidates with running mates, so too, since 1976, those in charge of Presidential Debates have saddled presidential candidates (and the country) with vice-presidential debates.
So far, vice-presidential debates have been memorable most of all for the occasionally especially snarky or funny line. Most famously, perhaps, in 1988, George H.W. Bush's running mate, Dan Quayle, claimed that he had “as much experience as Jack Kennedy did, when he sought the presidency” - to which Michael Dukakis' running mate, Lloyd Bentsen, replied with this famous non sequitur: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Poor Dan was left to respond: “That was really uncalled for, Senator.” It was, I suppose. It also had no discernible effect on the election's outcome, but at least it was memorable.
Another, even nastier line came from Gerald Ford's running mate, Bob Dole, in 1976, when he claimed that "about 1.6 million Americans – enough to fill up the city of Detroit” had been "killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century." While it is true that each party has its somewhat isolationist wing, Dole wasn't there to represent that element. He was just being snarky - effectively denigrating the accomplishments of his own World War II "Greatest Generation" in the process.
Then, in 1992, third-party candidate Ross Perot's running mate, retired General James Stockdale made a fool of himself when he asked "Who am I? Why am I here?" Presumably, someone could have answered the first question for him, but was there ever any plausible answer to the second question? Indeed, is there ever any seriously plausible place for a third-party candidate in our presidential electoral system?
Finally a more recent moment of nastiness - this time from the winning side - came in 2004 when George W. Bush's Vice President, Dick Cheney, sort of dismissed John Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, by saying "The first time I ever met you was when you walked on stage tonight."
All entertaining perhaps, but not very edifying and, all in all, neither all that memorable nor very deserving of remembrance!
What memories will tonight's performance leave us with? Will they matter? Should they?
Or will viewers be tempted to recycle Stockdale's line and ask themselves "Why am I here?"