A History Lesson for Tim Kaine and Mike Pence on the Vice Presidential Debate

In 1988, Republican Dan Quayle blew it during his sole debate—and his opponent punched back in the best way possible. Reuters

On Monday, the day before the vice presidential debate, Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence practiced. The Indiana governor first reserved rooms in a Sheraton Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, where he sparred with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (who was acting as Pence's opponent, Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine), The New York Times said. Then Pence scooted over to Raleigh, North Carolina, where he met with his team of advisers and coaches for more debate prep. This was after weeks of methodical preparation in which Pence pored over briefing books and videos of Kaine's interviews, according to the Times, perhaps all with one idea in mind: Don't blow it at Tuesday night's debate.

Vice presidential debates are tricky—there's usually only one per election cycle, and the nominees are faced with the twofold challenge of defending both themselves and their running mates. The latter is a tall order for Pence; explaining the many musings of Donald Trump will be no easy feat. That challenge will be a little more straightforward for Kaine, a senator from Virginia who already has practice defending one of the toughest subjects related to presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and has a home-field advantage: The event will take place in Virginia, where Kaine also once served as governor and as mayor of Richmond.

Cleaning up after Trump might be a dirty job, but defending himself shouldn't be as hairy—Pence is generally well-liked in Republican circles. And reviewing videos of Kaine is a smart move, if vice presidential debates of the past are any indication.

Perhaps one of the most noteworthy vice presidential debate blunders occurred on October 5, 1988. Republican Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush's running mate, lost stature after comparing himself to John F. Kennedy, to which Democratic vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen (Michael Dukakis's running mate) delivered what might be one of the best one-two punches in vice presidential debate history:

Quayle: "I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency."
Bentsen: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
Quayle: "That was really uncalled for, senator."

And it didn't end there: An article published in the October 17, 1988, issue of Newsweek captured the zinger and the moments that led to Quayle's plummet that evening, which resulted in disastrous overnight polls for Quayle (and probably a couple of negative percentage points for Bush). Although the famous Quayle-Bentsen blunder didn't wipe the Republican pair out in the election—Bush was elected by a margin of six to five—the sound bite serves as an important reminder for Pence and Kaine on Tuesday night: Do your homework (and don't compare yourself to a Kennedy).

Below is the full text of the article on the Bentsen-Quayle debate and Dukakis's search for meaning in the 1988 presidential election, excerpted from the October 17, 1988, issue of Newsweek.


For Michael Dukakis, it was probably the best single week since his convention triumph, way back in July. The polls were looking up. His sound bites on the evening news seemed sharper, more authoritative. Best of all, his running mate, Lloyd Bentsen, scored a clear win over Dan Quayle in their televised debate. But heading into this week's final debate with George Bush, Dukakis and his troubled campaign were again facing a turning point. It might be the last chance to define himself and his cause, to sound a clear central theme and show the voters at last where he would lead the country—and why he should lead it.

It was a measure of the snake-bitten campaign that none of this had yet happened, only four weeks before Election Day. "The amazing thing is that we aren't out of it altogether," said Timothy Hagan, a party leader in Cleveland. George Bush hadn't yet buried Dukakis with his "values agenda" of hot-button issues, but it wasn't for lack of trying; Dukakis was still on the defensive, branded by Bush as a permissive, free-spending "liberal." And while Dukakis's own proposals were finally ranging beyond his familiar promise of good jobs at good wages, there was no unifying vision to knit them together. "The problem remains message," said David Axelrod, a Chicago-based Democratic consultant. "Dukakis can describe the trees one by one, but doesn't seem able to show us the forest." Last week, his handlers spread the word that he had found his theme: He would play on the vague middle-class fears of coming troubles by sounding the trumpet of economic nationalism. We are in a "battle for America's future" to make the country No. 1 again, Dukakis said; "I want to build...an America that goes for the gold." And the stakes are no less than "whether our children and grandchildren will enjoy an American standard of living."

How would that play? When he aired the theme, Dukakis stepped on his own message by delivering it at a factory that turned out to be Italian-owned. But glitchers aside, even the strategists were far from certain that voters would look past today's prosperity to borrow future trouble. Still, as they saw it, there was no choice—"There ain't no other horse for a challenger to ride," said one adviser—and the time was right. The apathetic electorate finally seemed to realize that one of these men would be elected in four short weeks. "Now that the voters are listening, we have to make the sale," a top aide said.

Sound bite: The best break for Dukakis was the Bentsen-Quayle debate—a bout that began with Quayle looking strong and confident, and ended by confirming many voters' doubts about his stature, maturity and competence. The sound bite of the night was Bentsen's brusque one-liner: "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." But the damage went a good deal deeper. Quayle tried three times to say what he would do if he suddenly became president; each time he fumbled into the same recitation of his résumé, and the effect was to give the impression of a robotized candidate who who couldn't go beyond programmed answers. Quayle grew visibly more flustered, and Bentsen pressed the attack, managing to appear calm, statesmanlike and smart. The overnight polls were a disaster for Quayle: By margins of two to one, viewers decided that Bentsen had won. Even the Republican "spin doctors" found little to crow about. "The Quayle problem is permanent," a top GOP poll taker concluded, and it could cost Bush 2 to 3 percentage points.

For the record, the Bush campaign rallied behind Quayle. Bush praised his performance, and Ronald Reagan accused Bentsen of delivering a "cheap shot" with his JFK crack. But Quayle was sent back to the boondocks for further campaigning; staffers could only hope that out of sight would be out of mind. Meanwhile, the Dukakis forces moved to exploit the issue, trotting out two new TV spots assailing Quayle's competence and Bush's judgement in choosing him. Dukakis himself rubbed in the lesson: "Strong presidents look for strong vice presidents. Weak candidates look for something else."

The Bush counterattack took two directions. He began most days on the high road, sounding the "kinder, gentler nation" notes of his acceptance speech and calling for such programs as Youth Engaged in Service (YES), to enlist middle-class youngsters to help the disadvantaged. But in the afternoons, Bush resumed his attack-dog mode, lashing at Dukakis as a soft-headed liberal who would raise taxes, pollute the environment, sic IRS agents on helpless taxpayers and foster higher interest rates. He bored in on Dukakis's record on crime, repeatedly invoking Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who tortured a Maryland couple while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison. The victims themselves were touring California last week, endorsing Bush. But Bush insisted that none of this was mudslinging; he was merely clarifying his differences with Dukakis. And he harped again on the Pledge of Allegiance, saying: "I'm not a McCarthy. I stand with a vast majority of the American people on this issue, and I'll be damned if I'm going to stop talking about it."

Economic ideas: How hard should Dukakis push his own counterattack? Democratic elders disagreed; some found the whole notion of negative campaigning intellectually distasteful, while others derided this "Harvard Yard mentality" and urged competitive mudslinging. Dukakis himself was portrayed as ready to fight, but insisting on combining his own positive solutions with any attacks on Bush. In that, at least, he had no serious opposition: The strategists agreed that a strong central theme was long overdue to give voters something to be for. So it was that the scattered economic ideas that Dukakis has been testing for several months—warnings about the budget and trade deficits, foreign competition and plant closings, exported jobs and the "middle-class squeeze"—came together in a blast of economic nationalism. The Republicans had hung a "for sale" sign on America, Dukakis warned. In last week's debate, he noted, Quayle welcomed foreign buyers; but "Pretty soon, we're going to be tenants in our own country.... Maybe the Republican ticket wants our children to work for foreign owners, pay rent to foreign owners and owe their future to foreign owners. But that's not the kind of future Lloyd Bentsen and I want for America."

It was a strong pitch, but the cheers became snickers when Dukakis tried it out at the Mood Automotive Inc. in Missouri, a plant that turned out to be controlled by the Agnelli family. A wave of Italian jokes swept the campaign bus (the new theme song would be "Volare," wits decreed). Dukakis could still make the theme resonate on the national stage, beginning in this week's debate with George Bush. But to make it work, his friends and foes alike agreed, Dukakis would have to summon a warmth and passion that could lift his campaign above the technocratic appeal to competence. He had managed to find that fire just once, in his acceptance speech. Coming into the home stretch with millions of voters still to make up their minds, the election could well depend on whether he can muster it again.