Image courtesy of CNN
By Audrey Adams-Mejia
The recent diagnosis of President Trump with COVID-19 has laid bare a harsh reality of the 2020 election: vice presidential candidates matter more than ever. In a race dominated by a global pandemic, where either presidential candidate would be the oldest executive ever elected to their office, personal health crises can easily spiral into national ones without the safety net of a strong and capable VP. Despite a long history on the peripheries of the executive branch, the vice presidential office is currently experiencing a moment of pivotal importance. In light of this, the American voters should be ready to evaluate the vice presidential picks with every degree of scrutiny devoted to the top-ticket candidates. It’s time to take vice presidential hopefuls as seriously as we take the presidential candidates themselves. After all, the distance between the two has never been narrower.
Since its inception, the position of the vice president has always served as an insurance policy on the life of the president. Though VPs often act as heads of state and hold the title of President of the Senate, their true role is to ensure governmental continuity and national strength in case a president dies, resigns, or is otherwise incapacitated. Despite this grave responsibility, vice presidents have often been ignored or relegated within their own administrations. As such, many vice presidents have expressed disdain for their own office, considering it a “second-class role.” Thomas Marshall, vice president from 1913 to 1921, expressed his opinions in this way: “Once there were two brothers. One ran away to sea; the other was elected vice president of the United States. And nothing was heard of either of them again.”
Voters tend to share this sentiment. Just a month before election 2016, polls found only 40% of Americans could recall the names of either Mike Pence or Tim Kaine, and this lack of interest was on display at the vice presidential debate, which boasted half as many viewers as the first presidential debate the week before. This indifference to what is seen as the “undercard debate” is nothing new; low viewership for prospective veeps dates back to the very first vice presidential contest in 1976. Even with historic levels of interest in the current election cycle, these same trends have continued in 2020.
Even for the few undecided voters who did tune in to the vice presidential debate, there is little evidence the arguments they heard changed any opinions. The reason is simple: for the majority of American voters, the vice presidential candidates just do not factor into their decision-making process. This year of all years, however, perhaps they should. Given the health crisis of the current moment, the vice presidential pick could be just as important as the presidential candidate himself. With the election now only days away, the voters must take advantage of the dwindling opportunity to evaluate Senator Harris and Vice President Pence just as thoroughly as they would Biden or Trump themselves. Because there is a real chance, no matter what the result of the election, that the former could assume the position of the latter over the next four years of leadership.
Though Donald Trump appears to have recovered from his recent Covid-19 case, he may not be out of the woods in regards to underlying health issues. His positive coronavirus test first announced on October 2nd presented the most present health risk to any president since Reagan’s shooting in 1981. At that time, the responsibility fell upon Mike Pence to assume at least some presidential duties. Given how much is still unknown about the effects of Covid-19, voters should ask themselves how comfortable they would be with a de facto Pence presidency. Though President Trump has now claimed immunity from the virus, much is still unknown about the long-term consequences of the disease, especially with regards to cognitive impairment. Several studies have indicated that Covid-19 infection can lead to chronic brain damage, and this risk is particularly acute in populations over 70. In addition, the World Health Organization has cautioned that many survivors of Covid-19 will experience lasting impairments such as lung damage, heart failure, and limited cognitive functioning. It must be remembered that Trump, though in fairly good health before contracting Covid-19, belongs in the highest category of risk for the virus given both his age and clinical obesity. Though it remains unclear how much Trump’s recent illness will impact him in the coming years, we do know this: the 25th amendment allows the vice president to replace a sitting president if he is determined unfit to lead. Thus, if a protracted battle between Trump and lingering coronavirus complications ensues over the next four years, Pence’s leadership could potentially prove vital to the stability and functionality of American government. In such a scenario, a vote for a Trump reelection would essentially mean a vote for a Pence first term.
Trump is, of course, not the only 2020 candidate to experience persistent questions about his health. Throughout his campaign, Biden has been forced to constantly address concerns of his faltering cognitive ability, rumors of which have spawned from many false or misleading reports online. Despite several positive medical evaluations, legitimate health questions do remain for the 77-year-old candidate, who if elected would be the first president to turn 80 years old during his term. Potentially, voters should expect to see a President Biden relying more and more on VP Harris as his term progresses, especially given Biden’s signals that he will not seek reelection. This alone should give voters reason to further examine Harris’ candidacy, as she could be 4 years and a heartbeat away from becoming the nation’s first female president.
Regardless of the election’s results, the chances of presidential turnover during this upcoming term have never been more substantial. Despite the words of Thomas Marshall, the vice presidential candidates are likely to play an outsized role in the functioning of American government over the next four years. Ultimately, the potential for unforeseen catastrophe, brought too close for comfort by the Trump administration’s recent outbreak, should motivate all responsible American voters to look more closely at the “second class” candidates they may unwittingly be electing into the highest office in the world.