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A Meeting of “Second-Bananas”: What to Look for in Tonight’s Vice-Presidential Debate

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Photo of Tim Kaine: Amy Mayer, Photo of Mike Pence: Gage Skidmore
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Tonight, Indiana Governor Mike Pence debates U.S. Senator Tim Kaine from Virginia in this election’s only vice-presidential debate. Tim Walch, presidential historian and retired director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, points out that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the inception of vice-presidential debates, and he explains how those past events have likely affected what to expect this evening.

“First of all, don’t screw up,” Walch says.

Recalling Dan Quayle’s gaffe in comparing himself to John F. Kennedy and Bob Dole’s attribution of all 20th Century wars to the Democrats, Walch explains that the “first hallmark” of a vice-presidential candidate is the injunction to avoid such mistakes. Second, he says, this is a chance for the vice-presidential candidates to introduce themselves to the American people.

“Vice Presidents are often not only second-bananas, but they’re anonymous,” Walch says.  He predicts that the majority of Americans wouldn’t be able to identify Pence or Kaine from their photographs, so tonight’s debate is a chance for them to tell the American people who they are.

Third, “Punch upwards," he says.

Walch says this is a unique type of debate, in that the participants aren’t so much arguing over their own beliefs, but rather those of their presidential running mates.

And while vice-presidents derive much of their power by their proximity to the president, it’s still important for them to “remember [they’re] a side dish … not the entrée.”

Perhaps the most important quality for a vice-presidential candidate?

“Humilty, humility, humility," says Walch.

In this segment of River to River, host Ben Kieffer talks to Walch about the six elements of vice-presidential debates and what we can expect from Pence and Kaine tonight.

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River