Like almost every one of these minor-league debates, the matchup between Mike Pence and Tim Kaine did not look or feel like a not-to-be-missed clash of the titans. Nothing much happened that night that stands out in memory. Kaine was often rude and he interrupted a lot, though his behavior was nowhere near the level of President Donald Trump’s in this year’s first presidential debate. Pence was bland, as had been expected.
This year’s debate between Pence and Kamala Harris is almost certain to be different — not because anyone expects any titan sightings. What drives interest in a less-consequential event on television is outside circumstance. The big circumstance (and bear) in this case is the Coronavirus; it even chased the president off into the wings — temporarily, anyway. That has complicated the vice president’s status, with a lot of questions raised about whether he would be able to participate at all Wednesday night — or should.
Presupposing no other disasters intrude, and all goes ahead as planned, this VP debate has taken on hugely heightened interest.
Obviously there are other hot-point issues driving interest in the race — fear of losing health care, racial justice conflicts, climate change, economic uncertainty — but few people expect decisions on these to be driven by a vice president’s views.
Whatever topics the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, had planned to explore, surely the centerpiece will be the question now searing the consciousness of every voter: What can be done about this virus and its unrelenting impact on life in America, and how can the current administration defend its response in the wake of a surge inside the White House itself?
That point is likely to be underscored visually in the expanded separation between Pence and Harris — 12 feet, up from 7 — and the wall of plexiglass that the Harris team reportedly insisted on. The message in that will be clear: Members of this White House are dangerous to be around.
Whatever Harris does visually, she is certain to hammer home the story dominating the news this week: The virus has turned the White House into “a hotbed of viral activity,” as Dr. Sanjay Gupta put it on CNN on Monday.
Every time she does, it will refocus viewers’ attention on the overwhelming circumstance looming over the event: the odds that either one of these contenders might succeed to the presidency are the highest in the history of vice presidential debates — and the vice presidency itself.
Pence is in position behind a 74-year-old man, sick with a virus that has killed more than 200,000 Americans. And Harris is in position behind a 77-year-old man, who has his own actuarial questions — at least surrounding whether he could reasonably run for re-election. In the back of the mind of every viewer will surely be the realization that they are evaluating a future leader of the Free World.
All of which underscores the changing estimation of the job itself. For much of history, vice presidents have served a barely noticed role with no clearly established function. They did almost nothing of consequence — unless they shot a Founding Father in a duel.
More recent vice presidents have complained much less about lack of substance in the job, mainly because they have been given much more to do by more collegial presidents. Even the especially egocentric Trump put Pence in charge of the virus task force, and for a while at least, he won some credit for doing that job.
That still won’t mean the minds of any voters (or many, anyway) will be changed by how these candidates fare in this debate. After the debacle of the presidential debate, it might be valuable to actually hear some issues discussed rationally. But given the steady fusillade of eye-popping and outright bonkers developments in this race, what the two nominees actually say Wednesday night is not likely to be memorable.
The lasting impression, if there is one, will be about who these two people are, and who they are capable of being, in perhaps the not-too-distant future.