Last Monday, 84 million Americans tuned in to watch Donald Trump sniffle his way through a debate largely devoid of specific policy discussion. Debate viewership brought the NFL to its knees. But will even half as many people switch on the vice presidential debate—which is airing, not so coincidentally, on a Tuesday? Probably not.
Just to give you an idea, the only time a vice presidential debate garnered nearly as much attention as a presidential debate was back in 2008, when then-Senator Joe Biden and then-Governor Sarah Palin attracted 69.9 million viewers. And that one had a Palin in it.
Which is why it’s time to stop pretending we’d prefer to watch a normal political debate between two adults answering specific questions about, say, immigration, foreign policy and tax codes. Have you ever tried to understand the federal tax code? Yuck. Do you care about the difference between the Kurds and the Quds? I doubt it. Have you ever actually looked into the rigorous vetting process by which refugees are admitted into the country? Why would you, when a viral clip of a bumbling tangerine nasally chanting the word “wrong” is, objectively speaking, far more entertaining?
If the presidential debate was a television event on par with a Game of Thrones season finale, then the vice presidential debate is the quirky British TV show your friend who’s into conspiracy theories insists you have to check out.
I know what you’re thinking: This is the election for selecting the leader of the free world we’re talking about. It’s not Game of Thrones. It should be a bit boring and bogged down with detailed plans for job creation and health care. But if we’re being deadly honest—if for a moment we ignore that part of ourselves that needs to appear informed and cerebral to our family, friends and colleagues—it becomes obvious that a 90-minute train wreck is a far better accompaniment to pizza, beer and small talk than a spirited debate about whose plan to defeat ISIS risks the least number of American and Syrian lives.
The vice presidential debate, for all its hype or lack thereof, is slated to be a “normal” debate between two longtime politicians — Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana, and Tim Kaine, a senator from Virginia. But a return to normalcy isn’t what we want. We want to watch the blaze burn until it’s too late to extinguish. Kaine and Pence, for all their respective shortcomings (or at least Pence’s), aren’t arsonists.
Apart from a few camera ops here and there, both VP candidates have been largely out of sight of late —they’re hunkered down in mock debate sessions, memorizing and practicing their candidates’ policy plans. Which is exactly the sort of headline likely to get as many clicks as the vice presidential candidates’ own websites.
It’s true that in general vice presidential debates tend to be regarded as sleepy affairs compared to the stadium showdowns between presidential candidates. But that’s precisely because the job of vice presidential candidate isn’t to appeal to our emotions or our vague notions of what makes someone appear “presidential.” Rather, their job is to execute the wonky policy assignments that their running mates have set for them.
In the case of this particular vice presidential debate, though, spillover from the presidential debate is unavoidable — especially for Pence, who has the unenviable task of attempting to rewrite Trump’s first debate performance. He may also get to answer for Trump’s bizarre 3 a.m. tweetstorm disparaging a former Miss Universe.
Topics that were largely ignored during the presidential debate—like abortion, marriage equality, climate change and the refugee crisis—will likely take center stage. Kaine, a Catholic, will likely be called to defend his mixed record on abortion, which includes ongoing support for the Hyde Amendment, a point on which he differs from his running mate. (Pence’s own record on abortion is anything but mixed.)
Perhaps the most fertile ground for a “Trumped up” debate sequence is each presidential candidate’s record of support for the war in Iraq. Trump says he never supported the war (he did); Pence did, but Trump has “excused” him. Kaine, meanwhile, will have to answer for Clinton’s own past support of the war, though she’s since admitted that it was a mistake.
When it comes to climate change, largely ignored during the first presidential debate, Kaine will be on solid ground, while Pence will be stuck revising Trump’s bizarre record on the issue, which includes a 2012 tweet claiming that “climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.” (This notion hasn’t stopped him from trying to protect one of his golf courses from rising sea levels caused by—wait for it—climate change.)
Unfortunately for gossip columnists and fans of reality TV alike, the vice presidential debate will likely be light on the zingers and heavy on policy. And because the presidential nominees are the oldest in history, that‘s probably for the best.
As in any debate, there are sure to be a few self-destructive moments. And maybe we’ll even get to see the moderator. But will anyone be watching?