Publication Date

October 12, 2012



Do vice presidential debates matter? That seemed to be the question of the day, the one that dominated the airwaves before and after last night’s debate. From our perspective as historians, we are certain that they do matter, even if they don’t generate a bump in the polls or a defining moment in the campaign. For the historian, they are responses to long-standing trends and further evidence of the importance of understanding the past.

Our Roundtable on the vice presidential debate features historians responding as historians. Beyond questions over who won and who had their facts in order are questions about where the candidates’ ideas come from, why certain important discussions were left out, and how to cut through rhetorical poses in order to understand real policy possibilities. These are the sorts of questions historians and historical thinking can answer. Last night’s debate did matter, and our panelists can help us understand how.

—Allen Mikaelian, Associate Editor

The Respondents:

“Vice presidential debates are a throwback to the nineteenth century. In those days presidential candidates considered it demeaning to ask voters for their support; they typically adopted the view that the office should seek the man rather than the reverse.”
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—H. W. Brands, Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History, University of Texas at Austin

“Both candidates, but Biden especially, engaged in a fetishistic worship of an undefined ‘middle class.’  The vocabulary of American politics once included other classes, notably a working class, which seems now to be an archaic term relegated to the dustbin of history.”
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—John R. McNeill, University Professor, Georgetown University

“The history of foreign policy, of course, constantly mocks broad and self-gratifying generalizations. Peace may come through military preparedness, but then so may unnecessary war.”
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—Emily S. Rosenberg, Professor of History, University of California-Irvine

“If Joe Biden had brought a cane with him, he may have been tempted to hit Ryan over the head a la Preston Brooks to Charles Sumner in 1856.”
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—Gregory L. Schneider, Professor of History, Emporia State University

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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