Yes, the vice presidency has a constitutional status, but in essence the debate was not really any different than a cable segment featuring dueling press secretaries from the opposing campaigns. If people were looking for a window into what Pence and Harris would be like as presidents themselves, they would only be satisfied if their hope was for a president who praises the person who selected him or her, and who answers questions with rehearsed lines that often are barely or not at all responsive to what is asked.
It is hard to see—Wait, is that fly on our screen at home? No, it is actually on Pence’s hair isn’t it? Beg your pardon. As we were saying, it is hard to see how this vice presidential debate could consequentially alter the main trajectory of the race or the underlying reputations of the running mates. Neither of the candidates claimed to know Jack Kennedy, and neither looks like a near-term prospect as being the next Jack Kennedy.
One of the most famous quotes about the vice presidency—not as famous as the one from Vice President John Nance Garner about the job as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”—was from the first person to hold the job, John Adams: “I am vice president. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.”
No vice president in modern times has been nothing. The office has steadily expanded in staff, and usually in governing influence, although that is always granted or ignored at the discretion of the president. But in terms of presence in the public imagination running mates still tend to be closer to the nothing end of the spectrum than the everything end.
Even people who arrive in the vice presidency with formidable previous achievements and public profiles, from Lyndon Johnson to Nelson Rockefeller to Biden himself—tend to shrivel in their public personas. It is the nature of the job and the bargain that people accept to be close to power and to instantly gain status as more likely than anyone else actually to become president himself or herself. Pence was previously a governor, and Harris is a senator from the nation’s largest state. Both are fluent speakers who had no trouble occupying the stage. But neither, in the number two role, naturally invited commentary on the lines of, “Why isn’t that person at the top of the ticket?”
Harris didn’t respond to Pence’s reminders that she had once proposed a ban on natural gas “fracking,” and simply repeated that Biden doesn’t support a ban on fracking. That is in keeping with what running mates are supposed to do, but it served to underscore a reality: My independent views don’t matter anymore, except possibly in private if I don’t get crossways with the president. Pence understands that reality, and has lived by it, more than anyone.