Vice presidential candidates Mike Pence and Tim Kaine will debate next Tuesday night (10/4, 9pm). The debate will air on all major networks, so, bright lights, big arena. The VP hopefuls each have an opportunity to articulate their own ticket's vision. They can tamp down the extraordinary racket of character issues and controversy, and discuss foreign and domestic policy in serious terms. They can help voters make a less emotional, more informed choice on November 8th.
Or they can add to the noise.
No doubt, it'll be tempting to look for righteous standing in these character wars. And sure, evaluating integrity, comportment, and fitness for office is critical. But this electorate is, well, not at risk of being short-changed on fodder for that test.
On Tuesday, these two men will each have less than 45 minutes of on-air talk time. Substantive policy discussion appears to be MIA elsewhere. They should leap at the chance to prove themselves the sort of politician (lately described wistfully by other politicians) with whom one can disagree without viewing as a menace to democracy, or a joke.
Democrats never expected to feel that Mike Pence could win a measure of respect simply by stating germane viewpoints, without rancor or silliness. Republicans could not have foreseen the day when they'd be glad for a sane, on-topic performance by Tim Kaine. But that day has come. Supporters who believe in their candidate ought to see as a triumph any seized opportunity to lay out a comprehensible explanation of their ideas.
To be sure, watching an authentic, high-stakes battle of wits and political philosophy – especially so late in an election cycle - is normally a source of stomach-churning, nail-biting, partisan anxiety. But for those American voters who are decent, rational, and currently appalled, it would come as a relief.
What viewers should hope to see addressed in some form Tuesday evening is simple. The two parties are directly opposed in philosophy about five central issues; the economy, foreign affairs, social policy, the environment, and immigration.
- On the economy, Tim Kaine must make the case for stimulus spending, progressive taxation, and close regulation of macroeconomics. Mike Pence has to champion cuts in domestic spending, lower tax rates with a flatter distribution, and an ever-freer market.
- Look to Kaine to define liberal social policy as guided by individual license and equal rights. Pence will want to share a rationale for social policy based on traditional Judeo-Christian values.
- The hawk vs dove metaphor has outlived its usefulness in describing the foreign policy differences between the parties, but they remain stark. Listen for the Democratic candidate to expound on a complex approach to national security that emphasises relationships, strategic public communication, diplomacy and narrow military action. His Republican counterpart should seek to defend an approach more concrete and absolute, one that draws from the ideal of “peace through strength”, with a bent towards wider military action.
- The two major parties’ representatives should also be prepared to convincingly defend their widely divergent views on immigration and the environment.
- Questions about the tension between intelligence gathering and privacy might also arise. In contrast to clearcut right and left issues, this one has created bedfellows strange enough to beg that a nuanced stance be expressed by each candidate.
Raucous talk about character has truly interfered with voter ability to evaluate policy. Americans who intend to vote but remain undecided obviously believe that whatever the personal foibles of Trump and Clinton, either is still a viable contender. Our would-be presidents have a responsibility to re-center the dialogue now, regardless of what comes from their competition, or from reckless talking heads. If they are finding it hard to stick to that, the least they can do is delegate it to their running mates. The expectation from the top of each ticket should be that the VP candidates spend their time during this debate engaged in enthusiastic efforts to stand in proxy for their boss’s policy positions, rather than taking up arms in the ongoing, exhausting character clash.