In the very beginning, it was a consolation prize reserved for the top also-ran in the presidential derby, then an irrelevancy questioned by the office-holders themselves. More recently this role, and this person, assisted the commander-in-chief with special projects in addition to their duties on the National Security Council.
Today, the American vice president — whoever that may be next January — is no longer playing second fiddle in an orchestra of two but auditioning for the maestro’s baton.
That’s why we listened more intently than ever to the VP debate last night. Appropriately staged on President’s Circle at the University of Utah, that’s no longer unthinkable or necessarily long term. The news about the president’s fight to overcome COVID-19, and repeated questions about Joe Biden’s mental acuity, speak both to the vicissitudes of mortality and the reality of one’s readiness.
Unlike the tempestuous Thunderdome the nation endured between Messrs. Trump and Biden the week before, this debate was full of information and insight. From China and climate change, to taxes, trade and terrorism, we learned a lot about what separates not only the candidates and parties, but the nation itself.
As much as some want this election to be a referendum on persona, in reality it is a showdown between ideology and record, about whether to reform America or fundamentally change it.
Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisFive reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season CIA director says there will be consequences if Russia is behind 'Havana Syndrome' attacks Biden, Harris volunteer at DC nonprofit before Thanksgiving MORE, still contending with a prosecutorial past that’s out of sync with her record as one of the Senate’s biggest liberals, spoke about our need to make more friends abroad (it’s all about “relationships”), the judicial threat to the Affordable Care Act (if you have a pre-existing condition “they’re coming for you”), and that a $4-trillion tax hike in the teeth of a pandemic is okay as long as you aim it at the rich.
What she didn’t speak about was that her running mate, Joe BidenJoe BidenUS lawmakers arrive in Taiwan to meet with local officials Biden meets with Coast Guard on Thanksgiving Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE, had opposed the raid that snuffed out Osama bin Laden when Joe was VP, and delayed the rescue of young humanitarian Kayla Mueller held by ISIS thugs who tortured and violated here before taking her life. Her non-answer to “packing the court” was a confession that she and Joe will likely do just that.
Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceTrump endorses challenger to Hogan ally in Maryland governor's race Pence to headline New Hampshire event focused on Biden spending plan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Arbery case, Biden spending bill each test views of justice MORE, in the other Plexiglassed cubicle, spent his time focused on the ultimate consequences of a Biden/Harris led nation.
At times asking questions as frequently as the well-prepped moderator Susan Page, Pence drilled down on economics (record job creation before the COVID storm), foreign policy (we were the first to stand up to China with more than rhetoric) the Green New Deal (a job “crusher” that would add trillions to our national debt), and the police (they’re among America’s heroes).
After another tumultuous week in the Age of COVID-19, where the latest patient bore a Pennsylvania Avenue address, Vice President Mike Pence knew he had to reassure the nation that the health of both would not lose a step on their way to successful rebounds. He scored well there, and his cool command of facts confronted not only Ms. Harris but detractors in the media as well.
Kamala Harris, despite her often dismissive body language, scored points for intelligence and motivation, not to mention the historic nature of her candidacy. She also had to show she had the chops to be president if summarily summoned. Many will feel she scored there as well.
The one question both avoided: succession in the case of death or incapacity of their not-so-young ticket mates. This remains the elephant in the room, and the reason why past vice presidents (from Thomas Marshall and Garret Hobart to John Nance Garner and Alben Barkley) understood they were understudies constantly preparing for the ultimate lead role.
Daniel WebsterDaniel Alan WebsterLaura Loomer says she's tested positive for COVID-19 How Donald Rumsfeld helped save the presidency Gun deaths surge in Iowa ahead of loosened handgun restrictions MORE — once pursued by two different presidents (Zachary Taylor and William Harrison) to be their VP — turned both down saying “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead.” Short-sighted as it turned out: both Taylor and Harrison died in office.
John Adams, the nation’s first second-in-command, said it better: “I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.”
Last night we saw what everything might look like, sound like, and actually be.
Hail to the (Vice) Chief!
Adam Goodman is a national Republican media strategist and columnist. He is a partner at Ballard Partners in Washington D.C. He is also the first Edward R. Murrow Senior Fellow at Tufts University's Fletcher School. Follow him on Twitter @adamgoodman3