"The vice president has two duties," then-Sen. John McCain quipped in 2000 to explain why he wasn't interested in the second-in-command spot on George W. Bush's ticket. "One is to inquire daily as to the health of the president, and the other is to attend the funerals of Third World dictators."
It's pretty obvious that neither Vice President Mike Pence nor Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) are competing for the chance to attend dictators' funerals.
That means that there was really only one important question asked at Wednesday night's vice presidential debate—a question that moderator Susan Page put to both would-be veeps within the first 20 minutes of the contest: "Have you had a conversation or reached an agreement…about safeguards or procedures when it comes to the issue of presidential disability?"
It's a question that looms ever larger in the middle of a deadly pandemic—and larger still after President Donald Trump was hospitalized last week for COVID-19. It matters more than it normally would because no matter wins this year's presidential election, he will be the oldest man ever inaugurated into the office in January: Trump will be 74 years old, and Biden will be 78.
Both candidates completely ignored it.
Pence dodged by going back to a previous topic, scolding Harris for comments she'd made previously about a potential COVID-19 vaccine. He pivoted away to the Trump administration's tired talking points about the swine flu that hit during President Barack Obama's tenure.
Harris waved it away in an even less serious way, choosing to call up some random biographical details from her stump speech and vague nonsense about how she values hard work—which is great, but c'mon.
Unfortunately, Page moved along to a different question and didn't press either candidate. That's a shame because, again, this is almost literally the only thing that a vice president has to do. The other discussions about policy—and, yes, in a welcome change there was a good bit of actual discussion of policy on Wednesday night—are somewhat moot since a vice president's formal responsibilities only kick in if the Senate is deadlocked or if the president can't do his job anymore.
In fact, Page should have drilled down even further. Are there any circumstances under which Harris or Pence would ask the president's cabinet to use their 25th Amendment powers to strip power from a president who was clearly unable to discharge his duties? The nation deserves to know.
It's understandable that both Pence and Harris are unwilling to talk about the obvious health and age concerns surrounding their running mates, of course. And both did a satisfactory job of showing that they are competent adults if they have to take over as commander-in-chief.
Still, the specific question matters. The White House has been obfuscating and misleading the public regarding Trump's recent bout with COVID-19, and this would have been an opportunity for Pence to reassure the public that there was a plan in place should the president's health take a turn for the worse. Heck, a lot of Americans think Pence would be a better president anyway.
Harris missed an opportunity to draw a contrast with the current administration's fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants strategy. Most Americans think Biden won't finish even a single four-year term in the White House, so she could have reassured voters by demonstrating she was at least aware of that worry.
In a race between two very old men, one of whom is sick with a potentially deadly disease at this very minute, neither Harris nor Pence respected the voters enough to provide a little straight talk.