President Mark D. Gearan joined a conversation on MSNBC on Oct. 4, discussing the vice presidential debate between U.S. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia and Governor Mike Pence of Indiana.
Gearan, who served as Assistant to the President, Director of Communications and Deputy Chief of Staff during the Clinton Administration, discussed his experience prepping a vice presidential candidate. In 1992, he steered the Democrats ahead of the vice presidential debate between Vice President Al Gore and Vice President Dan Quayle.
The MSNBC interview took place with the NBC News Correspondent Hallie Jackson.
This week, Gearan was also quoted in a POLITICO article about the 2016 vice presidential debate, reflecting on his experience with the 1992 debate. The article was written by the award-winning journalist Todd S. Purdum, a past speaker of the HWS President’s Forum Series.
Gearan said: “Conventional preparation-but huge expectations problem, since everyone only remembers the Bentsen knockout. Having watched that ’88 debate several times in preparation for the ’92 debate, I realized Quayle was otherwise a competent debater. In my mind, it speaks to the expectations game. In this cycle with two capable chaps in Kaine and Pence-it seems the real game is for Kaine to advance the momentum HRC garnered at Hofstra. And for Pence to stop the bleeding of Trump’s uneven performance.”
The complete POLITICO article is listed below.
Pence v. Kaine: Battle of the Normals
Todd S. Purdum • Oct. 3, 2016
It looms as the most normal political encounter of this paranormal political year: two middle-aged career politicians, experienced legislators and governors, debating for 90 minutes over their sharp but presumably civilized policy differences on the issues of the day.
There’ll be no Donald Trump-style invective. No Bernie Sanders ideological fireworks. No crowded field of GOP contenders vying to outdo each other for one good sound bite or memorable attack. Just two conventional pols reverting to form.
For a generation and more, vice presidential debates have been a colorful sideshow that sometimes overshadowed the main event: wacky Uncle Joe Biden, a pit-bull Sarah Palin, the snarling Dick Cheney or the befuddled Admiral James Stockdale, who famously asked, “Who am I? Why am I here?” Not this year. Now the presidential contest is the whole carnival, a nonstop flurry of off-color putdowns, pre-dawn tweet-storms and mudslinging.
So when Tim Kaine and Mike Pence face off Tuesday night in their one-and-only vice presidential encounter at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, will it come as sweet relief in this sour election season? Will dull suddenly become the new exciting?
“I think this will be the least consequential vice presidential debate of the modern era, for a number of reasons,” says the veteran Republican strategist Steve Schmidt.
Tuesday night’s debate is the moment when we’re most likely to hear substantive arguments about governance and the future of America, and get the best look at the campaigns’ actual platform and ideas. And yet, a vice presidential face-off has probably never mattered less. In part, that’s because the entire campaign has been so polarizing-and largely substance-free-that it’s hard to imagine there are many voters waiting to see just how Pence or Kaine makes them feel about their party’s ticket.
It’s also because Trump’s struggles this week have raised such existential questions about his candidacy that it’s hard to imagine even a stellar performance from Pence changing that trajectory. “In the past, you’ve had vice presidential candidates play key roles in stopping the downward drift that flowed from a bad first debate performance by the presidential nominee,” Schmidt says. “But there’s never been a situation where the top of one ticket has had such fundamental questions about his temperament and fitness.”
Perhaps not since the earnest policy duo of Al Gore and Jack Kemp met in 1996 in what Kemp’s running mate Bob Dole called “a fraternity picnic there for a while,” has there been so little anticipatory excitement about a clash of the No. 2 candidates. Gore opened that debate with a promise to his GOP rival, a former NFL quarterback: “If you won’t use any football stories, I won’t tell any of my warm and humorous stories about chlorofluorocarbon abatement.” It drew the lowest ratings of any veep debate since the tradition began in 1976, 26.6 million viewers (or barely a third of the audience that tuned in to watch Trump and Hillary Clinton last week).
In one sense, of course, this is an unusually crucial debate. Trump would be the oldest president ever inaugurated, and Clinton the second, so in actuarial terms, a vice president has perhaps never been more likely to have to step in. Then again, it’s pretty obvious that either Pence or Kaine could rise to the challenge.
“The most important question that everyone will have is can either one of these people step into the Oval Office and be competent if need requires,” says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “And my guess is that both of the nominees will pass that competence test, and if they do we won’t hear anything about them again until Nov. 8.”
Vice presidential debates have often produced sparks-intended or otherwise. In 2008, Palin started off by asking Biden, “Can I call you Joe?” (It turned out she did so because she’d had a tendency to call him “O’Biden” in debate prep.) In 2004, Dick Cheney, the sitting vice president and president of the Senate, mocked John Edwards’ Senate attendance record by sneering, “The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight.” (That turned out not to be true, but the point was made.)
In 1976, when GOP VP candidate Dole attacked the history of what he called “Democrat wars” in the 20th century, his opponent Walter Mondale quietly rejoined, “Sen. Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man.” The moment hurt Dole’s running mate, Gerald Ford, in his close race against Jimmy Carter.
In 1984, the Democratic nominee Geraldine Ferraro-the first woman on a major-party presidential ticket-bristled at what she called her opponent George H.W. Bush’s “patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.” Bush, under pressure to compensate for a bad first debate performance by Ronald Reagan against Mondale, stepped in it the next day by un-gallantly boasting into a microphone he didn’t know was open that he had “tried to kick a little ass last night.” (Bush himself had refused a vice presidential debate against Mondale in 1980, seeing no upside in such an encounter).
In fact, this year’s debate does have an unpredictable element, but-fittingly-it’s not the usual one. The question is just how Pence will navigate the sharp differences within the Republican ticket: He and Trump contrast strongly in personality, tone and, to a lesser degree, their substantive views on trade, military intervention, gay rights and higher taxes on the richest Americans-differences that the moderator, Elaine Quijano of CBS News, presumably will seek to tease out. Pence, a former conservative talk-radio host, is no shrinking violet and no stranger to red-meat political rhetoric but as a personality comes off as a Sunday school teacher compared with Trump. Still, Pence is more conservative than Trump on many hot-button GOP issues, and it’s not clear how much time the running mates have been spending together, much less just how much they disagree.
Vice presidential debates “are the most complicated debates of the year because the candidates are basically there to make the case for someone else, but still have to defend their own records,” says Democratic strategist David Axelrod. “And, in the case of Pence, he’ll have to defend a candidate whose record is out of line in many ways from his own.”
Time and again since the Republican National Convention, it has fallen to Pence to defend, explain, amend or elaborate on controversial comments by his running mate, and it’s reasonable to assume he’ll once again be on the defensive in the debate. That’s a bit of an issue with Kaine, too, because there has been daylight between him and Clinton on issues like abortion and trade, albeit not such a wide gap. But Kaine, a fluid speaker with a demonstrated command of the facts (and a happily self-acknowledged reputation as a bit boring at times) will mostly face the opposite defensive challenge: Do nothing to embarrass his would-be boss, Clinton.
The biggest question in any vice presidential debate-would either candidate make a plausible president-seems less pressing this year than it did in 2008, for example, when 70 million viewers (more than for any presidential debate that year) tuned in to watch Palin, the unknown first-term governor of Alaska, confront Biden, who had first been elected to the Senate when she was 8 years old. What no one except the inner circle of aides to Palin and her running mate John McCain knew at the time is that Palin’s handlers were so worried about her lack of knowledge and preparation that they feared she might not make it through 90 minutes on the stage.
It’s not as though the potential qualifications of Pence, 57, and Kaine, 58, don’t matter. It’s just that they seem pretty evenly matched: Both were raised Catholic, though Pence became an evangelical Protestant. Both were practicing lawyers. Kaine was mayor of Richmond, Pence a congressman, Kaine the former governor of Virginia, Pence the sitting governor of his native Indiana. Neither is vulnerable to the doubts about his experience that so crippled a callow Senator Dan Quayle in 1988.
That year produced the most memorable one-liner in vice presidential debate history, actually a four-liner, Lloyd Bentsen’s devastating putdown after Quayle likened his experience to that of Jack Kennedy: “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Bentsen’s rejoinder was spontaneous, but not entirely unplanned.
In Bentsen’s debate preparation, Quayle was played by Rep. Dennis Eckart of Ohio, with a golf tee tucked behind his ear. At one point, when Eckart as Quayle said he had experience in the Senate comparable to John F. Kennedy’s when he sought the presidency, Bentsen spluttered, recalls Mike McCurry, who was Bentsen’s campaign press secretary and now co-chairs the Commission on Presidential Debates.
“Bentsen said, ‘He cannot possibly compare himself to John F. Kennedy-I knew him,'” McCurry remembers. “My memory is that at that moment, people said, ‘That is a great point to make.’ We didn’t think that much about it, but it clearly stuck in Bentsen’s craw. It was an anticipated moment, but not a planned moment.”
After the debate, McCurry recalls, Bentsen’s wife, B.A., confronted his staffers with concern. “She said, ‘I just think Lloyd looked like an angry man.’ She was upset,” McCurry says. “I remember saying, ‘Ma’am, I think it came out OK.'” It did-in part because the single pool TV camera was on Quayle’s stunned reaction-but it wasn’t enough to keep Bentsen’s running mate, Michael Dukakis, from losing all but 10 states and the District of Columbia in November.
Four years later, in 1992, Gore again enlisted Eckart to play Quayle, recalls Mark Gearan, who helped supervise the Democratic debate camp in a rented barn in Tennessee. “Conventional preparation-but huge expectations problem, since everyone only remembers the Bentsen knockout,” Gearan says. “Having watched that ’88 debate several times in preparation for the ’92 debate, I realized Quayle was otherwise a competent debater. In my mind, it speaks to the expectations game. In this cycle with two capable chaps in Kaine and Pence-it seems the real game is for Kaine to advance the momentum HRC garnered at Hofstra. And for Pence to stop the bleeding of Trump’s uneven performance.”
In the end, the most memorable moment of that 1992 debate was probably third-party candidate Stockdale’s unintentionally infamous introduction of himself. There’s no percentage in predicting just what might stand out about this year’s debate. But at least one thing seems certain.
“Everybody’s had the experience where you see a moving truck coming down the street and all the neighbors wonder, ‘What are we getting here? Are we getting crazy people or a nice family?'” says GOP strategist Schmidt. “If either Mike Pence or Tim Kaine jumped out of their minivan and came over to say hello, you’d be perfectly fine with them, normal people who fall into the broad band of what you expect.”
In this particular election year, that may just be the highest compliment of all.