This year’s campaign, even more than most, has focused on the two people at the top of the major-party tickets. Even more than many recent vice-presidential candidates, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Gov. Mike Pence (R-IN) must feel like the forgotten men of this campaign. They travel, they fundraise, they defend their ticket partners and attack the other presidential candidate, yet former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump dominate the news.
Far from diminishing the importance of Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate, the relative obscurity of Kaine and Pence so far makes that event even more significant. One of these two men will be the 48th vice president; neither is currently well-known to many Americans, and Tuesday’s debate is likely the last opportunity for them to claim center stage in a campaign over-crowded with celebrities. Voters who take their duties seriously should tune in.
It matters who the next vice president is. While 83 percent of presidential terms have been completed by the elected president, a significant number were not. Of our 44 presidents, nine were vice presidents who became president when their predecessor died or, in one case, resigned. So the chances of an unplanned succession are not trivial — especially given the fact that Trump and Clinton are at the older end of the range of most presidential candidates and have released less health information than many before them.
Moreover, the changing role of vice presidents provides greater reason to care whether Kaine or Pence succeeds Vice President Joe Biden. Ever since Jimmy Carter and Walter F. Mondale remade the vice presidency 40 years ago the office has become a more important part of the administration, a high-level adviser who counsels the president on the full range of issues that come to the Oval Office and a troubleshooter who represents the country on important foreign missions, in negotiations with legislative leaders and in managing inter-departmental problems.
A review of recent vice presidents’ duties illustrates how much the job has changed since former Vice President John Nance Garner’s famously invidious description: Lloyd Bentsen may have thought Dan Quayle was “no Jack Kennedy,” but Quayle spent a lot more time in the Oval Office as vice president than Lyndon B. Johnson did under JFK. Quayle also had much more face time with President George H.W. Bush than virtually any of Bush’s other advisers. During George W. Bush’s presidency, there was even some speculation that the constitutional roles had flipped: People lamented Dick Cheney’s “imperial vice presidency” and joked that Bush was a heartbeat away from the presidency. Cheney’s role was exaggerated, but he clearly was influential. And Biden has sustained a high degree of influence for two terms. Bottom line: During the last six administrations, three Democratic, three Republican, the vice president has been a consequential figure.
There’s no reason to think that pattern won’t continue, regardless of whether Clinton or Trump is inaugurated. Trump would come to office with far less knowledge about public affairs and less experience in public office than any president in history. He clearly would need high-level help dealing with vexing national security and diplomatic challenges, domestic issues and a Congress consisting of hostile Democrats and many unenthusiastic Republicans. Trump reportedly promised Ohio Gov. John Kasich that as vice president he would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy while Trump focused on “Making America Great Again.” If Pence, a governor and former congressman who has the strong ties to the party establishment that Trump lacks, were to receive the same assignment, he would be the most powerful vice president in history.
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No one expects Clinton would contract her presidency or expand Kaine’s vice presidency in such a historic manner. In addition, Bill Clinton would offer a competitor of sorts for Kaine for the “last person in the room” role that Biden performed. Kaine likely would continue the pattern of the last six vice presidents; their conduct has established patterns of behavior, expectations and a successful model that invites imitation. Bill Clinton used Al Gore extensively, and surely Kaine would also find an important role in a Clinton administration.
Either Pence or Kaine will speak to the next president when others have left the room. One of them will represent the president — and the nation — in conversations with world leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. One of them will be a player in administration councils on topics ranging from health care and abortion to climate change and trade. One of them will exercise influence with members of Congress (where both men have served and have friends), and will become prominent a player in all sorts of public events.
So Tuesday’s debate is significant. While most voters will decide how to cast their votes based on their partisan attachments and their assessments of the presidential candidates, not on the running mates, past vice-presidential debates have made a difference at the margins — which are where some presidential contests are decided. In his 1976 debate with Republican vice presidential candidate Bob Dole, Mondale clearly elevated his standing and thereafter the Democrats used him in high-profile ways. Mondale’s presence helped Carter win states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which he needed for his Electoral College majority. Cheney’s performance in 2000 probably helped Bush, and Biden’s mocking dismissal of the Republican program in 2012 re-energized the Democratic base after President Barack Obama was off his game in the first debate. Palin’s performance in the 2008 debate arguably hurt her Republican running mate, Sen. John McCain. And some vice presidential debates have provided thoughtful discussions of issues, like the 1996 encounter between Jack Kemp and Al Gore.
Kaine and Pence may not be able to shift big blocs of the electorate, but they may make a difference. Can Pence credentialize Trump as a plausible president and reassure Americans that the Republican No. 2 could be an adult in the West Wing? Can he plausibly defend Trump’s controversial words and deeds? Can he energize Republican politicians who have been unenthusiastic about Trump? Can Kaine reach blue-collar Democrats and other constituencies who are less enthusiastic about Clinton — millennials, blacks, Hispanics? Can Kaine secure his swing state of Virginia and help Clinton carry neighboring North Carolina? One or both candidates may distinguish himself and accordingly claim a larger role going forward or reduce his future effectiveness.
Moreover, today’s debate tradition offers the candidates more exposure than was the case when they were consigned to campaign stops in backwater towns and covered only on newspaper back pages. It has provided part of the infrastructure which has elevated the vice presidency from its historic insignificance to its modern consequence, a positive development that runs counter to the trajectory of many other governmental institutions.
That in itself is another reason Americans should care about, and watch, tonight’s vice-presidential debate: to lend their support to the vice presidency, a governmental institution that has been moving in the right direction. That’s something all citizens should support.