by Kaitlyn McAvoy.
ST. LOUIS – Thursday night’s vice presidential debate was a flashback to 20 years ago: On the Democratic side, a 60-something U.S. senator with decades of experience in Washington. And at the other lectern, a 40-something Republican with a lot less experience in public office.
However, unlike the 1988 debate between Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Republican Sen. Dan Quayle, there didn’t seem to be a clear winner between this year’s candidates, Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin.
“I’d call it a draw,” said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soho, an assistant political science professor at the University of North Texas, who studies president and candidate TV speeches.
But regardless of the debate outcomes, experts agree there are similarities between then and now.
Quayle had no national reputation before being chosen as the Republican vice-presidential nominee and experts criticized his experience, said Kent Redfield a political science professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Sound familiar? This year, few people recognized Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s name when Republican John McCain chose her six weeks ago to be his running mate.
And like Bentsen, this year’s Democratic vice president pick, 66-year-old, is an older candidate who is “solid, experienced, and a basic Democrat,” said Redfield.
G. Terry Madonna, a public affairs professor who specializes in voters and voting behavior at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, also sees similarities between Quayle and Palin.
“Quayle was considered to be a lightweight who was over his head,” said Madonna. Palin, likewise, is the less experienced candidate who at least some of the electorate doubt is capable of being president if necessary.
Eshbaugh-Soho thinks voters were looking for Palin to do a better job at the debate then she had in recent interviews and believes she came very close to proving her qualifications. She satisfied her Republican supporters but didn’t seem to clearly answer many of the questions, he said.
“It certainly wasn’t a home run,” said Eshbaugh-Soho. “But it certainly wasn’t a strike-out.”
What many people may remember most about the 1988 debate was when Quayle compared himself to John F. Kennedy and Bentsen responded: “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”
There were no comments like that during Thursday night’s 90-minute debate at Washington University.
“There was no zinger,” said Eshbaugh-Soho, adding that he thought Biden, who has a record of speaking his mind and sometimes putting his foot in his mouth, did really well at holding back any comments that could backfire.
Bill Bianchi, chairman of the Progressive Democrats of Illinois, who plans to vote for Sen. Barack Obama in November, said Biden couldn’t come out of the debate looking like the “mean guy.”
Bianchi said Biden didn’t make any mistakes and articulated his experience of 30-plus years as a senator and a progressive Democrat who is ready to help guide the economy.
Lee Roupas, chairman of the Cook County Republican Party, said it is “very unfair to compare Quayle and Palin” primarily because Palin is a stronger candidate than Quayle. As Alaskan governor, Palin has a record of cleaning up Alaska’s corrupt system that Quayle didn’t have, said Roupas.
Palin was a surprise pick like Quayle, but there was no excitement surrounding Quayle like there has been for Palin, who’s brought immediate life to the Republican Party, said Roupas.
Political scientist Redfield thinks McCain put some thought into the 1988 surprise pick when he chose Palin.
“He viewed his situation that he needed to take some risks,” said Redfield.
Roupas said while Palin has less foreign policy experience than Biden, she exceeded expectations at the debate and proved to people that she is ready to be vice president.
“She came on very strong, well versed and likeable,” said Roupas.
Besides 1988 and this year, Roupas said there have been other elections whose candidates had a large difference in age. Take the 1984 race between 73-year-old Ronald Reagan and 56-year-old Walter Mondale, and then there’s the 1996 race between 50-year-old Bill Clinton and 73-year-old Bob Dole.
Redfield said Bentsen gave a more powerful performance than Quayle in the 1988 debate, but it had no effect on the presidential race because Bush was a stronger candidate than Michael Dukakis and won handily won the election.
But this year’s race could be different, experts say.
“If VP selections are going to matter,” Eshbaugh-Soho said, “they’re going to matter in a close election.”