What's the point of the vice presidential debate? They're a strange format if you think about it: Two people who aren't directly running for president (at least this year) talk about political issues for an hour and a half.
There are a handful of memorable moments from recent debates — Sarah Palin asking if she could call her opponent "Joe"; Biden and Paul Ryan getting into an emotional discussion about abortion in 2012. Reaching further back, there's the classic exchange in 1988 in which Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
It doesn't get the same mentions, but one of the more surprising questions I came across was from 2000, when Bernard Shaw asked Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney to "imagine yourself an African American" and respond to being the target of racial profiling. This question, while odd, could potentially illuminate how empathetic a candidate was. But we don't care, because they're running for vice president, not president.
What does come up at VP debates? A quick keyword search suggests it's the policy issues you would expect to dominate: Iraq, in 2008 and 2004, the economy, and jobs. One subject that's been absent and that we can probably expect to come up tonight is immigration.
References to the incumbent president — sometimes by name, sometimes as "the president" — are also common. (Referring to Bush that way instead of by name was especially prominent in 2004 for some reason.) In the two non-incumbent years in the table, we see a pretty big difference in how much the outgoing administration came up. Clinton was hardly part of the conversation in 2000, while Bush was mentioned 26 times (in some form) in 2008 — not that much less than in 2004, when he was actually on the ticket.
This gets to the real value add of vice presidential debates. Vice presidential candidates act as surrogates for their running mates. This can mean different things — sometimes playing the attack dog role for an incumbent president while the president balances campaigning and actually holding the office. We saw this phenomenon in 2004, when Cheney went after John Edwards on a variety of subjects, including his record in the Senate, and in 2012, when Biden delivered an intense performance against Ryan.
It's hard to imagine improving on last week's debate in terms of attack dog politics for either candidate. What can Pence add to Trump's comments about stamina? And Kaine's jovial political persona seems hardly suited to deeper digs against the scandal-ridden Republican nominee.
Kaine's role, however, is another one that's unique to vice presidential debates. When there's no incumbent president in the race, one of the challenges for the incumbent party candidate is to explain how his or her presidency would be different. We saw Joe Lieberman serve this function in 2000, where Bill Clinton's name hardly came up — but Lieberman had not been subtle about his criticisms of Clinton's moral failures.
In 2008, Sarah Palin represented some continuity with Bush's folksy religious brand of conservatism, but also emphasized the "maverick" and "reformer" nature of her running mate, John McCain.
Kaine has the opportunity to explain in third person how Clinton will be a different kind of leader from Barack Obama — yet still continue his legacy.
What's really new about this year's debate is the extent to which the Trump ticket may be on the defensive, which is less standard for the non-incumbent party. There have been a lot of questions about Trump's candidacy throughout the election. The debate last Monday didn't help. Since last week's debate, it's been revealed that Trump hasn't paid federal income taxes in 18 years due to business losses, and on Monday the New York state attorney general ordered the Trump Foundation to stop fundraising in the state because it had violated charitable organizations laws.
In light of these new developments, Pence may have a lot to address. The controversy over Trump's presidency, including the reluctance and refusal by some Republican elites to endorse him, has created a new set of questions surrounding the collective accountability for the ticket. When the nominee has said something controversial, Republican leaders like Paul Ryan are in a difficult position. We don't often see other members of Trump's party take responsibility for his statements and actions. But as part of the ticket, Pence doesn't seem to have much choice.
The prospect of Kaine and Pence duking it out for 90 minutes is daunting to some observers. And tonight's debaters do, on some level, seem to have been chosen from vice presidential central casting: standard issue, not terribly inspiring politicians. But that's not the only way to look at VP debates. What we're seeing is someone other than the presidential candidate explain the appeal of the ticket and the direction of the party. If we can stay awake, it could be an informative shift in perspective.