A VP Debate That Was Indeed Worth a Bucket of Warm Piss

by Michael Dorf

Conventional wisdom suggests that the VP debate was supposed to serve two purposes: (1) Each VP candidate would attack the top of the other party's ticket; and (2) each VP candidate would make the case to the country that if the president should die or become incapacitated, he would be fit to step in. However, given the fact that Mike Pence is obviously much more qualified than Donald Trump to be president, issue (2) wasn't presented for him. Nor was it presented for Tim Kaine either, for although he doesn't have quite the depth of foreign policy experience as Hillary Clinton, he has enough, and he also has executive branch experience. Thus, the only realistic conventional purpose the debate could have served was for the VP candidates to argue about the qualifications and programs of the presidential candidates. And because we have been flooded with discussion (if not necessarily informative discussion) of that question already, it's not clear that the VP debate served either of its conventional functions.

That said, I will come back to point (1) shortly. But first, I want to evaluate the debate based on a different question: What kind of VP would the candidates be? We can begin with a general job description.

John Nance Garner, who served as Vice President during FDR's first two terms, famously described the Vice Presidency as a job "not worth a bucket of warm piss." That was then. In more recent years, vice presidents have had more to do than attend funerals. Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden have each had substantial portfolios of their own and have served in various ways as a kind of junior partner to the president. Indeed, at times GW Bush was thought to be doing Cheney's bidding rather than the other way around.

What kind of vice presidency would Tim Kaine or Mike Pence fashion? Kaine would likely be a modern conventional vice president--actively involved in the Clinton administration but clearly the second banana.

By contrast, Pence could well have immense power, given Donald Trump's apparent lack of interest in the details of governing. Indeed, at least according to a July NY Times story, when the Trump campaign was looking for a running mate, John Kasich was told by Donald Trump Jr. that he, Kasich, would be in charge of both domestic and foreign policy, with Trump Sr. in charge of making America great again. There is no reason to think that Pence was not offered roughly the same terms that Kasich rejected. Accordingly, at least on the Republican side, a great deal should have been at stake in the VP debate, because electing Donald Trump president could mean making Pence the de facto president.

Superficially, that might sound reassuring. As he demonstrated during the debate, Pence lacks Trump's personality defects. However, there is no reason to think that Trump's tempestuous personality would be held in check by Pence. Trump might cede policy to Pence, but Trump would reserve for himself the role of picking personal fights with the leaders of nuclear-armed countries. Accordingly, having Pence run policy should not be reassuring for anyone who is, quite rationally, worried about Trump's "great" temperament.

But let's assume that Trump would not end all life on Earth over a perceived slight. What would policy under de facto President Pence look like? Going into last night's debate, I would have said something like "deeply conservative on social and economic issues, neocon on defense, all with a patina of folksiness." The debate confirmed all of that, although social issues only came up at the very end.

As for the debate itself, I lack the discipline that Prof. Buchanan shows in refusing to look at the spin before blogging. Thus, I have distilled what I take to be the instant reaction, which I'll list in a few bullet points, followed by my assessment:

1) Kaine interrupted too much. I agree with this assessment. I haven't seen an analysis of how much each candidate interrupted the other. I did see that Pence ended up with five minutes more speaking time, but it's hard to know what's cause and what's effect. In any event, I thought this was a tactical error on Kaine's part. He didn't sound unhinged in the way that Trump did at the first debate, but you want to draw the contrast as sharply as possible.

2) Pence denied the obvious by repeatedly either denying that Trump said what he said or by shaking his head when Kaine quoted Trump. I agree with this too and I also think this will come back to bite Trump/Pence. Viewers watching the debate without much prior information may well have been taken in by Pence's there-you-go-again demeanor (and actually saying that), but the already-emerging post-debate wisdom is that we will now see Clinton ads with Kaine saying "Trump said X", then Pence either shaking his head no or saying "no he didn't," followed by footage of Trump in fact saying X.

3) Pence did himself more good than Trump. We shall see. It's certainly true that, as Kaine said, Pence did not respond to particular charges, such as Trump's endorsement of nuclear proliferation or his admiration for Vladimir Putin. But I don't necessarily agree with the second order version of this emerging conventional wisdom, which is that Pence had only one eye on helping Trump and the other on running for the GOP nomination in 2020. A losing campaign as the VP nominee is not a very good launching pad for a presidential run. The last unsuccessful VP nominee subsequently to get his party's presidential nomination was Bob Dole, and he had to wait five presidential elections for it, and then he lost the general election. If Clinton wins, maybe Pence begins the 2020 campaign as the presumptive choice of the far right of the GOP base, but he'll have a lot of competition for that position. Put differently, if Pence is a reasonably shrewd politician, he would have realized that the best way to help himself in the future is to help Trump win the election.

4) This debate won't change the race. I agree with this too, partly because VP debates almost never change the basic dynamic of a presidential race and partly because each VP candidate seemed to be aiming more for his base than for undecideds. This was especially clear with Kaine on implicit bias versus Pence on law-and-order, as well as Kaine's repeatedly going after Trump's greatest hits of bias. At this point, despite all of the weirdness of a campaign in which one of the candidates is Donald Trump, the race has settled into a fairly conventional Republican-versus-Democratic campaign, with a few variations that make the midwest friendlier to the GOP than usual and that make otherwise conservative states (like North Carolina and Nevada) with large minority populations friendlier to the Democrats than usual. We can assume that there will be some more Trump craziness and maybe an October surprise from Julian Assange, but even so, I would be surprised if the election ends up being decided based on anything other than turnout.

If you skipped the debate figuring I would summarize it for you, I envy you. And you're welcome.