Kamala Harris v Mike Pence: What the two women who’ve run for VP before said about their own debates

Andrew Naughtie
·3 min read
Sarah Palin at her vice presidential debate with Joe Biden, 2008 (REUTERS)
Sarah Palin at her vice presidential debate with Joe Biden, 2008 (REUTERS)

Kamala Harris’s vice presidential run is historic for many reasons, not least that she is the first black woman on a major party ticket. However, she is the fourth woman, and the third vice presidential nominee.

Twelve years before Ms Harris, there was Sarah Palin – the first Republican vice presidential nominee, who debated Joe Biden in an encounter that helped salvage at least some of her reputation.

And 24 years before Ms Palin came the true first: Geraldine Ferraro, the three-term Democratic congresswoman from New York who ran with Walter Mondale in what turned out to be the worst electoral college defeat in American history.

As Ms Harris prepares to debate Mike Pence, her two predecessors’ encounters with their own rivals are worth a look.

Both women faced veteran male politicians, and arrived under heavy pressure to justify their relative lack of experience. Ms Palin in particular headed into her debate the subject of national ridicule, coming off a disastrous interview with CBS’s Katie Couric in which she displayed only piecemeal knowledge of fundamental issues.

Yet both women’s performances were well-received at the time, including by their critics. “She killed,” said veteran Republican commentator Peggy Noonan of Ms Palin in 2008. “It was her evening, she was the star. She had him at ‘nice to meet you, hey, can I call you Joe?’”

Ms Palin’s famous opening greeting to Mr Biden was in fact a trick to avoid the senator’s surname, which she habitually rendered as “O’Biden” in debate prep.

Since then, Ms Palin’s reflections on the campaign have mainly been grievances directed at Barack Obama. However, in 2016, she did point out that hers was the only vice presidential debate since 1988 that demanded the candidates stand up throughout – putting her at a painful disadvantage thanks to her footwear.

Ms Ferraro, meanwhile, went into her debate in the midst of a losing campaign against one of the most popular incumbents in living memory, Ronald Reagan. Facing up to highly experienced vice president George H. W. Bush, she managed a calm and collected performance that dispelled any sense she was naïve.

The debate is mostly remembered now for a moment where she pushed back hard on Mr Bush’s condescension during a discussion about Iran and Lebanon. “I almost resent, vice president Bush, your patronising attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy,” she said to rapturous applause.

“I have been a member of Congress for six years ... Secondly, please don't categorise my answers either. Leave the interpretation of my answers to the American people who are watching this debate.”

Like Ms Palin, Ms Ferraro was partly blamed for the scale of her running mate’s defeat, in her case largely because of reports that members of her family were involved in crime. However, Mr Mondale has often said he does not regret choosing her.

In a 2008 interview with Mr Bush for NBC’s Today show, Ms Ferraro made clear that part of her was rooting for Ms Palin.

“I want her to do well,” she said. “I think when a woman stands up there, it’s important for little girls to see someone there who can stand toe to toe with the guy who’s been in the Senate for 38 years and running for vice president.”

And for her part, Ms Palin has offered Ms Harris advice of her own, including “out of the chute trust no-one new”, “don’t forget the women who came before you” and “have fun”.

Sharing a picture of herself with her predecessor on Instagram, she wrote: “Climb upon Geraldine Ferraro’s and my shoulders, and from the most amazing view in your life consider lessons we learned.”

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Congrats to the democrat VP pick 🇺🇸 Climb upon Geraldine Ferraro’s and my shoulders, and from the most amazing view in your life consider lessons we learned: 1) out of the chute trust no one new; 2) fight mightily to keep your own team with you - they know you, know your voice, and most importantly are trustworthy; 3) don’t get muzzled - connect with media and voters in your own unique way. Some yahoos running campaigns will suffocate you with their own self-centered agenda so remember YOU were chosen for who YOU are. So stay connected with America as you smile and ignore deceptive “handlers” trying to change you; 4) some fun terms you may learn: “OTR” - an orchestrated campaign stop that’s meant to look un-orchestrated where you “normalize” in front of voters. (I’d remembered not packing my running shoes, they turned it into a whole campaign stop with media detailing my every move trying on shoes.) OTR’s get bizarre (try eating in front of vultures looking for the “gotcha” shot!) but my team made OTR’s the second most fun thing! “Ropeline”: thee MOST fun thing! Every single handshake and holler and hug and smile melted my heart, energized my soul, and gave me the utmost hope in the greatest country on earth! The ropeline is often the only way to literally touch those whom you wish to serve, so be sincere in looking in their eyes, understanding why they’re there, never forgetting they represent the innumerable Americans putting their trust in you to serve for the right reasons. It’s who and what they represent that is all that matters! 5) don’t forget the women who came before you; 6) have fun! This IS the greatest country in the world and hopefully you’ll be blessed beyond belief, like I was, with meeting new people from all walks of life and see just how great it is! 🇺🇸 more to come... including one of the funniest things in my life, right before my debate with Sen. Joe Biden... stay tuned! - Sarah Palin

A post shared by Sarah Palin (@sarahpalin97) on Aug 11, 2020 at 2:16pm PDT

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