Guest contribution by Thomas Jäger: In the old men’s election campaign, the duel between Kamala and Pence takes on a new meaning
On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence and his challenger Kamala Harris duel on TV. The exchange of blows, however, is more than a mere speech duel. Both candidates have to prove that they could take over the presidency in case of doubt.
There’s a good reason why the two runners-up’s only TV duel gets so much attention, even though the runners-up have never decided the elections. Should Donald Trump take up a second term in office, it would run to 80 years, Joe Biden would even surpass this mark.
In gerontocracies, the rule of old men, the eyes are therefore always turning a generation deeper. Some will still remember the Soviet political infirmity under Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. And the sigh of relief that the “young” Mikhail Gorbachev caused.
About the expert
Prof. Dr. Thomas Jäger has held the Chair of International Politics and Foreign Policy at the University of Cologne since 1999. His main research interests are international relations as well as American and German foreign policy.
In the US, not only are the two presidential candidates over seventy, Trump 74 and Biden 77. The leaders in Congress are even older. Nancy Pelosi was born in 1940, Mitch McConnell is 78 years old. Together the four come to 309 years. In contrast, Mike Pence at 61 and Kamala Harris at 55 are downright young.
Different vice presidencies
Pence and Harris could both find themselves in the position of running for the presidency from the vice-office. That is the main task of the Vice President, if he cannot cast the casting vote in the event of a tie in the Senate, which he formally presides over. That is why John Garner, who was Vice President under President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1941, had said somewhat roughly: “This job is not even worth a barrel of warm piss.”
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Garner had broken with Roosevelt when he was up for a third term as president and was elected (and even ran a fourth time). Dick Cheney, who is considered to be the most influential Vice President to date, will have rated it very differently. It was in George W. Bush’s two terms in office. An “imperial vice-presidency” was assigned to him. His influence on the administration could not be overestimated. Mike Pence: Even before the TV duel with Harris, there was a dispute
His successor was not quite as influential, but took on a number of roles and maintained good relations with his president. That was Joe Biden. At that time, he himself led two TV duels as a runner-up. The first against Sarah Palin, who gave him the task of not appearing arrogant and arrogant towards her, and the second against Paul Ryan, with whom he probably intended to appear arrogant and arrogant. In any case, he did quite well.
Firing his vice-president would have suited Trump
Mike Pence, the current Vice President, sees his job in a completely different way. In no case take a stand and appear wiser than the President: this is how Pence’s mantra can be summed up. Most of the time you can’t see or hear him at all. When he does appear, he starts his speeches with praise for Trump, praises the president in the main part of his remarks and praises him at the end.
It is hard to imagine that he, who is so very different from Donald Trump – religious, conservative and loyal – really sees the world this way. But unlike many Trump advisors who thought they had to iron out Trump’s ridiculousness, Pence is still there and will also go into the second round. That wasn’t clear from the start.
Trump would also have been good at firing his vice to bring more drama to the election campaign. Because whatever Mike Pence has to offer, drama is not one of them. As Trevor Noah, who does comedy about politics, said: Just don’t pence as president! That is Trump politics without the entertainment. But that’s more of a nice punchline than correct. Because nobody really knows what politics Mike Pence stands for. That he embodies Trump politics tonight, however, can be considered certain.
Harris will want to provoke Pence to distance himself from Trump
Kamala Harris will want to provoke him to distance himself from the president. It is generally assumed that she will rhetorically corner Pence. The expectations of her are significantly higher than of pence. That means it can also fall deeper. She let it be known in advance that she was expecting an evening of Republican lies. But she will not succeed in driving a wedge between him and Trump compared to the always somewhat pompous Pence.
Pence bears the burden of portraying the past four years positively. It would have been easier for him if it hadn’t been for the corona pandemic. But not only did the Corona crisis management run disastrously, the economy also partially collapsed. Corona and the economy are the two big, important topics for Americans this year. Pence will still want to talk about security and immigration. Harris on Republican Racism and Climate Change.
Reach conservative and left-wing Democrats
Kamala Harris also faces a tricky task. Because the democratic election campaign strategy aims to win over two fundamentally strictly different groups of voters. On the one hand, those who voted for Trump four years ago and are disappointed with him. They tend to be older, white workers with an intermediate level of education. Your subject is jobs, jobs, jobs. On the other hand, the left democrats, who see police violence, racism, climate sins and a policy of priority for the economy as the basic evil, should also vote for the Biden / Harris ticket.
Kamala Harris is Biden’s wild card in the fight against Trump
Trump wanted to nail this down in the duel with Biden: he was the puppet on the left. Biden countered “I am the democratic party”. With that, Trump’s attack came nowhere. But Harris cannot say “I am the Democratic Party”. There is no way out because she is only a runner-up candidate. And now she can no longer leave. She did so in the primaries, where, after five debates, she failed precisely on the question of whether she should appear as a moderate or left-wing candidate.
With vague content, she only had one good moment: when she put Joe Biden near racists. Pence may remind you of that. It will be exciting to see if, and if so, how Pence drives her in this balancing act between conservative and progressive Democrats and how Kamala Harris deals with it. She will keep confronting him with Trump and hope that he gives in under the weight of alternative facts.
Challenge to act as future president could do debate good
But because of the age of the candidates, it’s more than a speech duel. Both have to convey credibly that they can take over the presidency from one second to the other. When Harry Truman became president himself in 1945 after only 82 days in the office of vice president, he was not at all prepared for it. The Cold War was just breaking out and Truman was in deep conflict with Stalin from day one.
Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and implemented a number of significant reforms by 1969: he desegregated, civil rights and social reforms were passed. Gerald Ford’s brief presidency after Richard Nixon’s resignation was less sustainable, although he, like Johnson, was a very experienced MP. By the way, Ford was the only president who was never elected. Not even as a Vice President. Because Nixon didn’t appoint him until his elected vice president resigned.
The challenge of appearing as future President Harris or future President Pence could be good for the debate. Because it could give her a seriousness beyond campaign attacks that was never achieved in the discussion between Trump and Biden.