Eleven Three Twenty: Three Things to Look for in Tonight’s VP Debate
October 7, 2020
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Vice President for his first two terms was a colorful Texan named John Nance Garner who famously claimed that the role of VP “wasn’t worth a bucket of warm spit” (or “piss,” depending on which source you believe).
While that may have been true in the 1930s and early 1940s, the role has transformed over the years. Most modern Vice Presidents now are seen as a key advisor/trusted confident, and they often lead the high-visibility programs or task forces that are central to their administration’s vision for the country. (For example, former President Barack Obama relied heavily on Joe Biden’s advice while in the White House, and Vice President Pence is leading the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force.)
In 2020, the role of the Vice Presidential candidates looms even larger. After all, the incumbent is an obese 74-year-old who has recently contracted a virus that has killed over 210,000 Americans. While the challenger is 77 years old and regularly faces questions about his mental and physical stamina for the office. So, the old cliche of “a heartbeat away” is a distinct possibility at some point over the next four years.
Consequently, I think tonight’s debate in Utah (9:00 PM Eastern) between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris takes on heightened importance. (Although I still agree with David Axelrod’s wonderful observation that “Vice Presidential debates are like opening acts at a concert. They’re entertaining enough but not what you came to see.”)
So, what should we be looking for from the two Vice Presidential candidates? I believe it comes down to the following three things.
- What will the emotional tone of the debate/debaters be this evening?
After nearly every American (political pundit down to average citizen) was thoroughly disgusted by the first Presidential debate, I expect both Vice Presidential candidates to behave themselves. Don’t get me wrong — I think they will go after each other hard on the issues. But I can’t imagine them demonstrating the emotional levels and personal attacks we saw from the top of the tickets in Cleveland. Then again, absolutely NOTHING about 2020 would surprise me at this point. So, perhaps we’ll follow “The Cacophony in Cleveland” with “The Screaming in Salt Lake.” Who knows?
2. How will they handle the tough questions each of them will face?
Lost in the histrionics of the Cleveland debate was the fact that neither President Trump or former Vice President Biden were forced by moderator Chris Wallace to answer the tough questions he asked them. (Not that I blame the Fox anchor. Short of using a taser, he had little chance of controlling the debate that evening, given how “hot” the President came out from the start.) I expect Vice President Pence and Senator Harris will not be as lucky in dodging the tough questions.
Specifically, I expect the Vice President will be hit with hard questions on two key issues: 1) the pandemic — specifically the administration’s response to it, given that he’s the head of the task force, and 2) the subsequent economic fallout from the pandemic and how to fix it. Meanwhile, Senator Harris will have to answer questions about whether the Democratic ticket supports “packing the Supreme Court” or “defunding the police.” She’ll also need to clarify their level of support for “Medicaid For All” and “The Green Deal” — two other key issues for their party’s progressive wing.
Overall, I expect Vice President Pence to attempt to tie the Biden/Harris ticket to the radical left wing of the Democratic Party as much as he can tonight. Meanwhile, Senator Harris will attempt to bring every topic back to the pandemic, the economy, and the President’s handling (or mishandling, according to her) of them.
3. What are their individual visions for governing, given the plausibility of a “heartbeat away” scenario due to their running mates’ ages and health issues?
As I mentioned above, President Trump’s and former Vice President Biden’s ages and health concerns mean that it is entirely possible one of the two candidates debating will become President at some point over the next four years. Consequently, Americans who tune in will want to hear how they would govern, should that tragedy befall the nation. And how well they articulate that vision may make a difference for some undecided voters.
A Final Thought
As you have probably concluded by now, I’m expecting a much more substantive debate than what we saw in Cleveland. Although various media outlets are now reporting that the Vice President’s campaign is refusing to allow him to stand behind a plastic shield during the debate. So, maybe we WON’T get that much more substance in tonight’s debate...sigh.
Still, a man (and an entire nation) can dream, right?
For those of you wondering why I’m qualified to write about this topic, I have a Ph.D. in Human Communication Studies from the University of Denver — with an emphasis on leadership, power, and persuasion. My dissertation research focused on political communication, specifically Ross Perot’s 1992 Presidential campaign (“A Mythic Analysis of Ross Perot’s 1992 Campaign Infomercials as a Modern American Jeremiad”). And I have worked on — or consulted for — a number of political campaigns, ranging from the mayoral to the Presidential level.