To Rally the Faithful
H. W. Brands, October 2012
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. But even if they had chosen to stump on their own behalf, the state of communications technology would have limited their reach. Before radio and television, candidates could be seen and heard only by those who encountered them in person.
So they relied on proxies. The Republicans and Federalists, then Democrats and Whigs, then Democrats and Republicans mobilized their best speakers in the many counties and several states to laud their party’s champion and denounce his opponent. Sometimes the proxies debated head to head; more often they spoke singly at rallies of the faithful. They took the high road of principle when they thought the elevated path would garner votes; they took the low road of attack and innuendo when the nether route appeared more promising.
Their efforts were about as revealing of the qualifications of the presidential candidates as Thursday’s vice presidential debate – which is to say, not very. Then as now, the proxies spoke past each other, sticking to their stories in the face of denials and rebuttals by the other side. Vice President Biden and Congressman Ryan spouted more statistics than any seasoned stumper in the nineteenth century would have allowed himself; each sought to convey conviction and strength, which presumably would be imputed to the candidate at the top of the ticket. And each sought to rally the faithful and ensure a large turnout in November.
Which might be the central point, or at least the most pertinent outcome. It’s hard to imagine many voters changing their minds about President Obama or Governor Romney based on Thursday’s performances by Biden and Ryan. A comparative handful might have weighed the possibility that Biden or Ryan could suddenly become president and treated the vice presidential debate as, in effect, a presidential debate.
But the more important result likely will have been to confirm the views of the already decided. Democrats could be energized by Biden’s performance, Republicans by Ryan’s. Each man swung hard, each landed some punches. Each side did well enough to claim victory.
Which side actually did win this latest installment in the battle of proxies won’t be known till election day. That was the rule in the nineteenth century; it still is.
H. W. Brands teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin. His current book is The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace.