By Arab News
By Andrew Hammond*
Wednesday’s eagerly anticipated US vice presidential debate proved a high-spirited affair at an extraordinary moment in the campaign. It may not shake up the race decisively, but it did highlight the huge role that Mike Pence or Kamala Harris will play in the next administration.
Pence needed to put up a strong showing to try to inject some momentum into Donald Trump’s campaign, especially now that the president is in quarantine after last week contracting the coronavirus disease. However, Harris also performed with much gusto during the 90 minutes and polls are unlikely to shift fundamentally as a result of the Salt Lake City contest.
A CNN survey of people who watched the debate found Harris did the best job and that her favorability rose as a result. About six in 10 (59 percent) said Harris won and her favorability among this sample rose from 56 to 63 percent. Meanwhile, 38 percent said Pence had the better night and his favorability remained fixed at 41 percent. The survey also found that 65 percent believe Pence is qualified to serve as president should that become necessary, while 63 percent said the same about Harris.
Despite the fact that the contours of the campaign may not change decisively following the debate, this does not mean it was a meaningless exercise — far from it. The debate provided a crucial window for the American public to look at the person who will, with both Trump and Joe Biden well into their 70s, be enormously influential in Washington for at least the next presidential term.
Traditionally, the vice president has not been seen as a key player in US administrations. Take the example of John Nance Garner, who held the post from 1933 to 1941 under Franklin Roosevelt. He said: “Vice presidents never get to go anywhere… the office is not worth a bucket of warm spit.”
However, this view of the office could not be further off the mark in 2020, hence why Wednesday’s debate mattered for at least two reasons. Firstly, the office has become perhaps the single best transitional step to the presidency, as Biden himself may show next month. Secondly, vice presidents have assumed more power and resources in recent decades, with recent holders of the office, such as Biden, Dick Cheney and Al Gore, among the most influential in history.
While partisan opponents widely criticize Pence and Harris, they are potentially capable of assuming the presidency if the situation arises, as they demonstrated on Wednesday with assured debate performances. Harris may not have Pence’s executive experience as a governor, but she is a respected senator and also a former state attorney general.
Even if the 2020 election winner does see out the presidential term to January 2025, Pence and/or Harris are on a potential fast track route to the Oval Office.
Moreover, even if Pence and Harris don’t make it to the top job, one of them will still enjoy hugely significant influence over the next four years, helping Trump or Biden from the vice presidential position. The power enjoyed by the likes of Biden, Cheney and Gore partially reflects the increased status of the vice presidency, which — as well as being manifested in larger staff budgets — also includes greater proximity to the center of power through a West Wing office in the White House, weekly one-on-one meetings with the president, and the authority to attend all presidential meetings.
Taken together, this is why the next vice president really does matter, not just to the US but also the world at large. Either Pence or Harris will have significant powers until 2025 and will also stand a significant chance of ultimately progressing to the presidency in the tumultuous geopolitical landscape that is unfolding in the 2020s.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.