Yes, Tonight’s VP Debate Matters. Let Me Tell You Why

Two white dudes who really love their flags.

Two white dudes who really love their flags.

I listen to a lot of political podcasts, and almost all of the major ones have made variations on the same joke in the past few days: when discussing the vice presidential debate, the hosts will crack wise about falling asleep because both Democratic VP candidate Tim Kaine and Republican VP candidate Mike Pence are so deadly dull. And then they’ll participate in a conversation about whether or not the vice presidential debates will “matter,” because vice presidential debates have traditionally never affected the polls.

This is bad, dumb thinking, on several levels. First of all: of course a vice presidential debate matters. These candidates are second in line for the most powerful job in the world. And Dick Cheney has proven that vice presidents can demonstrate an outsize effect on foreign and domestic policy even if the president stays in good health for all eight years of a presidency. Plus, vice presidential candidates traditionally take on the role of attack dogs, articulating the policies and arguments of the presidential candidates in rawer, more honest language. If you want to hear a less-polished discussion of what really matters to America, the vice presidential debate has traditionally been the event to watch.

Of course, we are living in a very different year for presidential politics, one where the rules don’t seem to apply. And that’s true for this vice presidential debate, too. While it’s true that the presidential candidates—both of whom are plagued by bad favorability numbers and scandals—chose their VP candidates at least in part because they were relatively boring and straightforward politicians, tonight’s debate is potentially going to be even more important than a usual vice presidential debate.

For one thing, at the top of the ticket we have the two oldest presidential candidates in history, which makes the vice president of more interest to the general population. Even though I have no doubt that Hillary Clinton could thrive over the course of eight years in the Oval Office, and Trump is supposedly the healthiest person to ever run for any office ever or something, sometimes bodies make their own decisions. (Plus, heaven forbid, if Trump wins, he’d likely commit an impeachable offense sometime within the first three months of his presidency.) We need to be aware of the character of these men in case they should have to take command.

But more importantly, assuming that Trump loses this November, this debate could be our first vision of what the post-Trump Republican Party will look like. Sure, Kaine is going to try to pin Pence to his running mate early and often during the debate. But Pence has repeatedly created distance between himself and Trump—from the Muslim ban to name-calling, Pence has demonstrated that he’s uncomfortable being lashed to Trump’s side. And Trump’s self-immolation over the last week and a half might give Pence enough pause to consider an escape hatch from the ticket. He’s not quite sixty yet, which makes him a young enough politician that he might have another post-Trump chapter in his political career.

If Trump goes down in flames this November, Pence and Paul Ryan will be the closest thing to party leaders the GOP will have, and I expect Pence to deliver some messages to the never-Trump crowd in this debate. Will Pence embrace Reaganesque trickle-down and interventionist Bush-era brutalist foreign policy, the way he did before he was on the ticket? Will he lean heavily on policies like tax cuts for the rich, no raises on the minimum wage, and cuts on regulations as a way to grow the economy? Seems likely. If you feel like you’re living in 1989 when Pence starts talking about his vision for America’s future, odds are good he’s fallen back on the Republican party’s baseline.

And hopefully, Kaine will hold Pence to his disgusting words on LGBTQ tolerance. It was Governor Pence, after all, who pushed the anti-LGBTQ “religious liberty” law that nearly destroyed Indiana’s economy. The rest of the nation, remember, recoiled at Pence’s brand of hatred, and organizations everywhere led anti-Indiana boycotts until Pence backed down. Civic Ventures founder Nick Hanauer really laid into Pence’s “almost surreal stupidity” in a Twitter rant that spread far and wide.

It’s doubtful that Pence will double-down on his hateful actions when the full light of the media is on him, but Kaine should hold him to it. This, after all, is the standard-bearer of the pre-Trump (and, likely, post-Trump) GOP: exclusionary, hateful, and obsessed with the terrible economic policies of the past. Pence needs to be revealed tonight—not as a harmless bore, but as the man many mainstream Republicans look to as the face of the future.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.