The vice president is–as an elected, constitutional officer–the one executive branch official a president cannot fire. That makes him unique. And it should be the focus of Wednesday’s debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris.
Every four years we get a single vice presidential debate in which the two candidates simply speak for the top of the ticket, answering the same types of policy questions asked of the presidential candidates during the big kids’ sessions.
Policy questions are a waste of time. A vice president does not set policy. He or she may not even have definitive input into the president’s decisions. What the VP nominees say on these issues does not matter.
So this year, with the two oldest presidential candidates in history on the ballot and the president currently infected with the coronavirus, the moderator should skip the theater and focus instead on the vice president’s constitutional duties.
These are the only three sets of questions worth asking Pence and Harris.
(1) What will you do every day as vice president to prepare to take on the powers and solemn duties of the presidency should it fall into your hands?
How will you ensure you are able to take the reins immediately if needed?
The candidates should have thought past this being a job that other former occupants have called “as useful as a cow’s fifth teat” and “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” They should be pressed to move beyond regurgitating the policy positions of the presidential nominees, to what really matters about their role: being ready to become commander-in-chief at a moment’s notice.
We want to hear whether they intend to take daily, in-person briefings of the President’s Daily Brief; if they have received a commitment from their partners on the ticket to attend any and every presidential meeting they wish; and how they will use their ample free time in this otherwise insignificant office to build the relationships necessary to serve as president if need be.
(2) What physical conditions of the president short of falling into a coma—such as the emergency surgery that Ronald Reagan had after his assassination attempt, or severe complications from a disease such as COVID-19—would prompt you convene the cabinet to discuss invoking Section 4 of the 25th amendment?
With whom would you consult?
Would you be willing to declare the president unable, even if his family and others disagreed?
The president’s powers and duties cannot be temporarily removed without the vice president. Period. True, a successful invocation of the 25th amendment’s 4th section would also require a majority of the cabinet—but even a unanimous cabinet cannot act unless the veep is on board. When Reagan went under the knife after being shot in April 1981, no transfer of power occurred despite the president’s incapacity. Precisely because the first in line to the presidency would rightfully exercise great caution, to avoid the appearance of a power grab, it is important to know what would trigger a potential vice president’s consideration of this never-yet-employed mechanism.
(3) What mental deterioration of the president—dementia, severe depression, adverse psychological reactions to medications, or other condition—would prompt you to convene the cabinet to discuss invoking Section 4 of the 25th amendment?
According to a 2006 study, more than a quarter of all presidents during their time in office met established criteria for one or more psychiatric disorders—with depression, by far, standing out as the most common. And yet, none have had power even temporarily transferred away from them. Richard Nixon’s mix of self-medication, lack of sleep, and increasing depression as the Watergate crisis swirled created at least temporary periods of incapacity for sound decision-making. A vice president must have the awareness to recognize such moments, and the courage to act when needed.
The vice presidency remains an insignificant office most of the time. Let’s use these debates to gain better insight into whether these potential vice presidents, when it matters, will be what we need them to be.