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Vice Presidential Debates Usually Don’t Matter. This One Is Different.

Do you remember past VP debates? Of course you don’t. Wednesday’s encounter between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence, however, has taken on a unique urgency in a very strange presidential election.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Wednesday, Mike Pence and Kamala Harris will be seated 12 feet apart in Salt Lake City for the vice presidential debate. It’s an otherwise inconsequential billing in the weeks before the presidential election on November 3. When, if ever, has a vice presidential debate mattered? What, if anything, do you even remember from watching Pence debate Tim Kaine four years ago (assuming you bothered to watch at all)? What can Pence and Harris tell us that Donald Trump and Joe Biden won’t or haven’t already told us in their own debates? Why—dear God, why—can’t the campaigns and the debate commission agree to take a week off?

The vice presidency is the easiest gig in presidential politics; it has the slightest responsibilities and the vaguest significance. But suddenly, it seems to matter more than ever. Trump and Biden are both in their mid-70s, which means Pence and Harris both have a distressingly high chance of assuming the president’s responsibilities themselves. After testing positive for the coronavirus last week, Trump spent three nights at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center before returning to the White House—now the site of an outbreak among staffers and visitors—on Monday. Meanwhile, Pence, who received another negative test on Tuesday, prepares to debate Harris after Trump’s bitter, erratic performance in his first debate with Biden last week. Pence isn’t just Trump’s vice president; he’s the nominal leader of the White House coronavirus task force. Presumably, Harris will underscore the vice president’s role in the public health crisis, which now stalks Trump’s own White House and haunts his reelection campaign.

Last week, Trump and Biden met in Cleveland for the first presidential debate. It was a loud, vapid, and excruciating spectacle that will surely escalate in its second and third installments scheduled for later this month. On Wednesday, Pence and Harris will sit for a debate that may well prove to be the only normal, sensible conversation we get to watch the two parties have in this year’s presidential contest. But they’re the vice presidential candidates, so even on their best behavior, Pence and Harris should prove no more insightful than Trump roasting Biden for 90 minutes and Biden telling the president to shut up. Four years ago, Pence and Kaine staged the last conventional scene in modern presidential politics: two mild-mannered deputies arguing at length about deficit reduction. Five days later, Trump joined Hillary Clinton on stage in St. Louis and outlined his plan to put her “in jail.”

In Pence, the former Indiana governor, Trump had a conventional partner to help with his Republican Party takeover. Pence’s fit in the suburban Reaganite mold seems no more or less Trumpian now than he appeared when he joined the ticket four years ago; and so now, even as Trump’s consigliere, Pence seems more marginal than ever before. Theoretically, Pence should represent a temperamental counterbalance to Trump, but realistically, he tends to represent the now distant, simpler moment when Trump seemed to need conservative cosigners to validate his candidacy more than conservatives needed Trump’s star power.

Even as Trump founders against Biden in most polls, congressional Republicans up for reelection, such as Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, have grown only more determined to reinforce and emulate Trump in the final stretches of their campaigns. Arguably, Pence will win his party’s future only if Trump loses the current contest. If Trump wins reelection, he’ll have rendered Pence obsolete. But if Trump loses, Republicans may well revert to conservative archetypes, such as Pence, in the next presidential contest, despite Trump’s distinct and enduring appeal to voters. Trump conquered the Republican Party through sheer force of personality while Pence models some unfashionable combination of loyalty, decency, and normalcy—at least in immediate and superficial contrast with his running mate.

Biden also models those qualities, arguably to a fault. In Harris, Biden has selected a junior partner who only kinda, sorta assuages the generational tensions that Biden otherwise flouts with his old-school stubbornness and his sincere unfamiliarity with so many of the concepts that now dominate the progressive discourse. Harris doesn’t resolve the differences between Biden and Bernie Sanders so much as she ignores these differences, preferring (even more so than Biden) to define her political purpose in opposition to Trump. When she was at her best during the primaries, Harris was a vivid and ruthless communicator who briefly seemed like she might outsmart Biden and outpace Sanders for the Democratic Party’s nomination. At her worst, though, Harris lacks conviction and direction. In a crowded primary with clear ideological contrasts, Harris, more than anyone else, cast her commitments all over the place. So she remains a passionate and telegenic figure, but indistinct. Like Pence, Harris obscures and postpones the drastic fissures in her party. Like Harris, Pence can only hope to survive the last normal night in presidential politics before the fissures split the country wide open.