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April 1, 2015

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Veeps go yeep! Nation nods

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OK. Forget everything that’s happened so far. Now it’s all about the next debate.

Obama versus Romney on Tuesday! That will be far more important than the conventions. Or the first debate, which President Barack Obama sort of lost, in a game-changing moment that we are now prepared to completely forget because it’s all about the next debate.

Which will be so far more important than the vice-presidential debate that we can hardly bear to mention them in the same paragraph.

Although that thing Thursday was pretty cool. Paul Ryan’s eyes! Joe Biden’s teeth! Paul Ryan’s water intake! Can that man hydrate or what?

The big question seems to be whether Biden was too aggressive or just right. It’s true that the vice president interrupted a lot, but, really, he spent the entire run-up week listening to Democrats beg him not to be passive. It’s a wonder he didn’t run onto the stage and instantly bite Ryan on the ankle.

You think Biden was too feisty? The 2012 record for debate aggression was actually set Thursday night in California, when a uniformed officer broke up a spirited encounter between Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, who had begun yelling and poking at each other rather vigorously. Perhaps Sherman and Berman were irritated because they are both incumbent Democrats, thrown together by redistricting and California’s new nonpartisan election rules. Or perhaps they’re just ticked off because their names rhyme. During one high point, Sherman grabbed Berman and shouted: “Do you want to get into this?”

I think I speak for all of America when I say nothing that interesting happened with the vice-presidential candidates.

The very fact that we have vice-presidential debates at all is kind of amazing, since for most of American history nobody thought they were worth mentioning, let alone listening to. Vice President John Nance Garner said his job wasn’t worth a bucket of warm spit, and, by that point, Garner had become so unimportant that nobody remembered whether he actually said “bucket of warm spit” or “pitcher of warm spit” or a container of something else entirely. Scholarly papers have been written on this mystery.

Quite a few of the vice presidents were men of considerable achievement, for all the good it did them. Calvin Coolidge’s vice president, Charles Dawes, was a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who also composed the music that became the song “It’s All in the Game.” Does this change your opinion of Calvin Coolidge? No? See, that’s my point.

On the other side, there were vice presidents like Schuyler Colfax, who was chosen by Ulysses Grant, then tossed out after the first term because he had been implicated in one of multitudinous corruption scandals going around town. Colfax quit politics and became a popular public speaker until, as one book of White House biographies reports, he died suddenly “after changing trains in subzero weather during a lecture tour of Minnesota.”

I have often envisioned myself coming to the same end, except that it would involve JetBlue.

The new vice-presidential era began with Bill Clinton, who actually gave Al Gore some stuff to do. Then George W. Bush put Dick Cheney in charge of energy, and foreign policy, and so very many other things that the president had all the time in the world to work out in the gym, watch football with his dog and chop down foliage.

Vice-presidential debates actually go back to 1976, when the world saw a clash between Bob Dole and Walter Mondale that was so riveting that no one now even remembers who they were running with. It’s just that once they’re over, we don’t talk all that much about what happened.

The most quoted line from Thursday’s debate in Danville, Ky., may have come when Ryan attempted to defend the theory that if you cut taxes, economic growth will make up for lost revenue. When Ryan said it had worked in the Kennedy administration, Biden retorted: “Oh, now you’re Jack Kennedy.”

Zap! Biden was referring, of course, to the time when Dan Quayle compared himself to Kennedy and Lloyd Bentsen came back with the “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” line. This turned out to be the most famous vice-presidential debate zinger in history. And a lot of good it did Michael Dukakis.

Like most unremarkable debates, Biden-Ryan wound up being pretty much in the eye of the beholder. The Democratic base felt empowered because Joe Biden brought up Mitt Romney’s 47 percent line, and he said “That didn’t happen!” or “No, no no ...” a lot.

The Republicans thought Biden made a spectacle of himself. Sarah Palin claimed he reminded her “of watching a musk ox run across the tundra with somebody underfoot.” I am only telling you this because I am still trying to imagine what that would look like. Also to point out that there are exceptions to the rule about how America now takes the vice presidency seriously.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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  1. "Obama ...sort of lost the Denver Debate." Surely you jest. He received the largest percentage of win votes from the American viewers [70 MILLION viewed] in recorded history of debates: 80 %Romney, 20 % Obama.


  2. Biden asked for examples in history when taxes were lowered and revenue increased. Biden provided Kennedy and Reagan as two. Biden interrupted with his lame comment before Ryan could get out Reagan.

    Here's a rule for you columnist and Biden to learn. If you [Biden] the only one laughing, it's not funny.

    The comment that got the most audience laughs came from Ryan: As the VP knows all too well...."sometimes the words don't always come out of your mouth the right way."