Here's Why Tonight's Vice Presidential Debate DOES Matter

Governor Mike Pence (left) and Senator Tim Kaine
Governor Mike Pence (left) and Senator Tim Kaine
AFP / Getty Images

Tonight’s vice presidential debate features two aging white men who collectively possess the charisma of a shoehorn. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine lacks both the demeanor and the star power to invigorate the begrudging Democratic base. Indiana Governor Mike Pence has barely uttered a peep since he was announced as Trump’s running mate in July. Who are these silent, white-haired muppets, and why should we waste an evening watching them?

First Things First

Tim Kaine rose to prominence as governor following the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, delivering a widely lauded speech at a convocation ceremony in the days after the massacre.

As a devout Catholic, Kaine is pro-life, though he maintains that what women do with their bodies is their business. He also took a break from Harvard Law in 1980 to work as a missionary in Honduras, which yielded him a fluency in Spanish that he now deploys at opportune moments with his distinctive dad panache.

MIke Pence, for his part, has barely gotten a word in edgewise since Trump halfheartedly introduced him this summer. He was considered — and is — the safe, predictable counterweight to Trump’s maniacal ravings, with policies firmly in keeping with his conservative ilk. He’s A-OK with discrimination against gay people, he signed one of the strictest abortion laws in the nation, and he was an early supporter of the Tea Party movement. In New York City, he forced his family to eat at a Chili’s.

Now that we’ve met the VP hopefuls, let’s get to it.

This Is Not Supposed to Be 'Fun'

Compared with the, uh, bombast of last Monday’s presidential debate, tonight’s event is poised to be drier than a pile of sawdust sandwiched between two saltine crackers and left to bake in the heat of an Arizona summer. This election season (decade) has been more flamboyantly fascinating, and also more draining, than any in American history. But just because tonight’s debate will not feature the proverbial shit-slinging that characterized the last one doesn’t mean it’s unimportant or irrelevant.

Last week’s debate was a circus, and that is not a compliment. Clinton smirked and shimmied and remained poised in the face of attacks from her opponent, a fleshy volcano spewing ad hominem vitriol and linguistically mangled asides for the duration of the ninety-minute ordeal. In the end, it was the most watched debate in history, with 84 million viewers.

It’s great that the debate generated so much interest from a generally apathetic citizenry, but its appeal wasn’t for the right reasons. The outcome of the election does not determine the next Top Chef or American Idol, but the recipient of the nuclear codes. The purpose of the debate is to put contenders for the presidency in a head-to-head contest, pitting their policies against each other with the ultimate goal of determining which one is better suited for office. Because it was so difficult to extract actual policy from the torrents of interruptions and name-calling, the VP debate might actually provide insight into the candidates’ views on real issues.

"Kaine-Pence will most likely produce a very substantive and policy-driven debate, so it’s a real shame there isn’t more interest," Tucker Martin, a Republican strategist, told the New York Times. "But, hey, once you’ve reduced a presidential campaign to just another reality TV show, you reap what you sow."

The role of vice president is objectively less important than that of president, of course, but the Twenty-Fifth Amendment allows the VP to assume the power of the presidency in instances of presidential incapacitation, like surgery. This was invoked once for George H.W. Bush and twice for Dick Cheney while Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush underwent medical procedures.

This is notable because…

...Both Candidates Are Super Old

Donald Trump’s radioactive coloring may not have its precise intended effect, but it does distract from one incontrovertible fact: He’s old. At seventy, Trump will be the oldest president the country has ever elected if he wins. And at 68, Clinton ain’t a whole lot younger — and she’ll be celebrating her 69th birthday later this month.

That said, the average life expectancy for white men in the U.S. is 76, which wouldn’t even allow Trump to finish out his second term (lol) before he dropped dead. Women, on the other hand, enjoy a life expectancy of 81 years.

Trump has released only minimal information on his medical history, appearing on Dr. Oz’s show to dramatically reveal a one-page letter from his longtime gastroenterologist, who said that aside from some cholesterol issues and the fact that he’s borderline obese, he’s in good health. Still, obesity increases the risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death for men in the U.S.

Hillary Clinton released her full medical records last year, which indicated that she was generally healthy with the exception of allergies and hypothyroidism. Nevertheless, her recent bout of pneumonia has, rightly or wrongly, prompted a great amount of speculation about her physical well-being. Perhaps an even greater threat to her health, though, is Trump’s sly suggestion that someone go ahead and assassinate her.

All of which is to say that the two plain white pillowcases occupying the debate hall this evening stand a nonzero chance of becoming the next president. You should know who you’re dealing with, because...

...Mike Pence Is a Monster

Donald Trump makes an excellent supervillain, what with his cartoonishly small hands and face the color and texture of a Cajun chicken breast. But not all villains wear weaves, and Mike Pence is, without doubt, a villain in his own right.

A look at Mike Pence’s voting record reveals a man who hates civil rights and basic human decency — he is best known for passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, which sought to allow businesses to deny services to people based on their sexual orientation. (He eventually backpedaled in the face of public pressure.) He has repeatedly sought to defund Planned Parenthood. He believes in abstinence-only sex education. He voted to eliminate funding for climate change education programs, and to ban the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. He opposed closing Guantanamo Bay. He was an ardent supporter of the Iraq war. He signed a bill that allows firearms to be kept in vehicles on school property, as well as one that legalized sawed-off shotguns. He’s unconvinced that cigarettes cause cancer.

Why do Pence’s positions matter? When attempting to lure John Kasich to assume the role of Trump’s running mate, Donald Trump Jr. allegedly informed the Ohio governor that he would be "the most powerful vice president in history," responsible for directing the country’s domestic and foreign policy (which is to say, almost everything). If Trump were to win, Pence would effectively be running the show. Don’t you want to know more about the sunken-eyed hate gollum who may well be leading your country?

Tim Kaine is Fine.

The VP Has Power

Joe Biden has become one of the most influential vice presidents in history, though it wasn’t always that way. Viewed at the time as a safe choice for Obama, Biden has risen in stature both in the public imagination — Uncle Joe! — and, more importantly, as a confidant and cudgel to the president. And never forget how Satan Dick Cheney steered George Bush from his co-captain’s chair, dominating the Iraq war, pushing for the authorization of torture, and skirting domestic surveillance laws.

Both Kaine and Pence may fade in importance against their respectively high-profile running mates. But tonight’s debate will allow us to better get to know the people the candidates have chosen as their right hands. It’s the first major decision either Trump or Clinton has made as a presidential contender, and in a race as harrowing and important as this one, that matters. Either one of these dull, waxen dads may be the next commander-in-chief, and you’ve already watched Westworld anyway.

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