Why We Should Watch the Vice Presidential Debate

There is almost no way tonight’s vice-presidential debate can be as exciting, memorable and strange as the first presidential debate was. Vice-presidential debates rarely make an impression. The only exceptions to this occur when one of the vice-presidential nominees is sufficiently new and interesting that voters want to learn more about that person, as was the case with Sarah Palin in 2008, or when one great line is remembered long after the debate ends. This is what happened in 1988 when Dan Quayle foolishly compared himself to President Kennedy. For these reasons, vice-presidential debates rarely have a major impact on the campaign. 

Tim Kaine and Mike Pence are, in many respects, typical vice-presidential nominees. They are party loyalists who do not have nearly the star power of their two running mates. They were both placed on the ticket because they have good resumes and can provide political help in specific areas. Putting Pence on the ticket helped Donald Trump assuage the concerns of religious conservatives and other hard line conservatives in the party. The primary political asset Tim Kaine brings to the Democratic ticket is that he hails from the swing state of Virginia. Recent polling there suggests that state is now solidly in the Clinton column, indicating that Kaine has been a valuable running mate for Clinton thus far.

Despite all this, tonight’s debate will be worth watching because, given the state of flux in which both parties found themselves in the primary, this may be our last opportunity to see such conventional representatives of their party clash on a national debate stage. Seeing two grey or white haired Christian men with Anglo sounding last names take positions that their party has embraced for decades on most issues will feel like something from the last century, like dial up internet service or VHS tapes. The issues that separate Kaine and Pence are the same issue differences that have defined our two party system since the Reagan years. That is the system that Donald Trump so successfully, and easily, upended in the GOP primary, and that Bernie Sanders came close to changing on the Democratic side.

During the debate Pence will voice his opposition to abortion rights and LGBT equality, citing his religious based reasons for those views. Kaine will take a more liberal position supporting, perhaps cautiously, abortion rights, LGBT equality and civil rights more generally. Pence will echo the trickle down approach to the economy that Trump spoke of in the first presidential debate, while Kaine will call for a government that, while far from radically intervening in the economy, should be put to work incrementally to solve these problems. On foreign policy, Pence, who has very little experience in that field, will likely echo the conventional hawkishness we heard from people like Ted Cruz in the Republican primary, while Kaine will place himself to the left of that, but not demonstrate the keen knowledge that his running mate has of these issues.

Pence and Kaine debating each other will, on substance, look no different than Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, but also of Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan in 1984, but it seems pretty clear that by the time the 2020 election rolls around, this partisan dynamic will have changed. Trump’s campaign has demonstrated that the GOP can no longer assume working class whites will vote for their economic royalist policies, while the Democratic primary made it clear that younger Democrats are no longer content with the incrementalism with which the Clintons have defined the Democratic Party for more than a generation. It is not clear what the next iteration of the American political party system will look like. The GOP might look very different after a Trump defeat or victory. It is also possible, although much less likely, that an opening will be created for a new party, but it is very hard to imagine the system returning to what it has looked like for the last 30 years.

It is also fitting that Kaine, 58, and Pence, 57, are both already well into middle age. Despite each of them being at least a decade younger than their running mates, they are both representatives of their party’s past. If either of them have a political future after this campaign, it will require reinventing themselves a bit once they become vice-president. Tonight’s debate is, therefore, worth watching, not because the candidates are exciting, but because it is likely the last of its kind. Middle aged American voters have seen, more or less, these two candidates on stage debating each other for our entire lives, but we may not see it again.

Photo: cc/Alex Guzman