“How the hell are you going to make the VP debate interesting?” fired off the editor, from her office on the 18th floor of Crikey Tower. “I have a plan,” I said. And I did. This is Colorado, man, first state to legalise dope. I don’t even like the drug, but there’s a head shop on every corner in the hipster zones round the city centre. Some truly die-hard political tragics were having a VP watch party in the Arts District, which is three blocks near the old rail yards, and there was a Herbs4You joint next door. Joint hahahaha see what I did?
A couple of squares of cookies-n-creme sensimilla sunrise and 90 minutes head-to-head of two white men in suits would become a delicious curlicued adventure of the mind. The Uber driver, a slightly daffy middle-aged woman, was a chemtrails/tunnels-under-the-airport/global-control type, put me in the mood.
“You know the government took over a bunch of Walmarts out east, and they’ve kept running them.”
“Entrances to the tunnels.”
Either this conversation was happening, or I was imagining it, which means I had a contact high from the whole damn city. In any case, I had a plan.
I had a plan, but alas I was already thinking like a stoner. By the time I rocked up to Herbs4You, the place was closed. Damn thing keeps office hours, who knew? Would have been obvious to a moment’s thought — Big Dope, and Small Dope, is making money hand over fist in the Rocky Mountain State, why would they need to open late? The customer is sold to the product, as an old white man in a suit once said. The temptation to punt the whole thing was overwhelming.
The VP debate is the worst. In a desperate attempt to big the whole thing up, CNN has been running a “moments” ad of past debate zingers – which consists in its entirety of Sarah Palin saying “oh — Joe there ya go again”, and Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle “I worked with John F. Kennedy — son, you’re no John F. Kennedy” in 1988, and that’s it. The office is not worth a warm bucket of piss, as John Nance Garner*, FDR’s first VP, said, and the debate is in that spirit.
(The first person to denounce the office was John Adams, who was also the first vice-president. My solution? Make the VP automatically Secretary of State, abolish their role as president/tie-breaker of the Senate, thus making the two-person ticket a genuine leadership choice, as well as removing the anomaly by which the VP has a presence in both the executive and legislative branches. No, no, you’re welcome.**)
So, the temptation to throw it over for an evening of Kevin James sitcoms was tempting — I’m deadly serious — but I’d already been spotted by the people I’d arranged to watch the debate with, a group of local humanists and non-religious activists, whose drug of course, like America’s, was caaaaaaaarbs, their table groaning with plates of curly fries and jalapeno poppers, onion rings and the other fantastical appetisers, the devising of which occupies 40% of the ingenuity Americans used to apply to exploring space. They waved me over. There were carbs. What’s a man to do. The debate began.
[Rundle: the devil comes to Colorado]
Well it was everything we expected it not to be. More than in any other VP debate past, this was a proxy war, in which each side attacked the other’s running mate and barely bothered to touch on his actual opponent. Mike Pence, the clipped and acerbic Indiana governor, got the running of it, and the best of it. He’s a former radio show host, a congressman and conservative state governor, small government and anti-abortion obsessive. If Trump wins and then dies, Pence will be president. If Trump wins and lives, the same.
Pence will de facto run the White House domestic and foreign policy agenda, especially in negotiation with Congress, while the Donald “Makes America Great Again”. Putting him on the ticket gives no great electoral advantage to Trump; it simply ensures that if he wins, he won’t have to do a lot of the boring crap. Pence is laser-focused and a joyless Jesus-bot to boot. While the Donald plays golf with Putin, Pence will be pushing a hard-right agenda that most of the Trumpistas never voted for, budget line by budget line.
Tim Kaine, his opposite number, will not have the same opportunity. De facto president? He won’t even be a de facto veep! That will be Bill’s job (imagine moving back into the White House, 16 years after you left, thank God they chucked the monarchy). Which is probably a good thing, because to judge by the debate performance, Kaine’s natural metier is running the Guest Rewards program at LaQuinta Hotels or some such. He’s a smiley, pleasant man, a centre-left Catholic with a serious commitment to social justice, and an equally ardent enthusiasm for not overly pissing off vested interests, which is why he’s been a mayor, governor, congressman and Senator in Virginia.
You wouldn’t have known that just on the strength of the debate. Pence went in for the kill on policy again and again, essentially tying Hillary to Obamacare and its “failures” — i.e. pre-ordained structural problems (which are now beginning to pile up) — the lack of a real recovery, and America’s retreat from the world, and the alleged consequent going-to-hell of the place.
Kaine was hamstrung by how much he couldn’t hit back — when Pence blamed Obama for Iraq’s current predicament, he couldn’t really blame the war since he and Clinton had both supported it, when Pence talked vaguely about showing strength to Islamic State he couldn’t demand whether that meant US boots on the ground, en masse, because that’s exactly what Clinton may do, and so on. So he looked the soft kid who hangs round with punks and gets punched a lot.
What he could do, and did excellently, was to hit Pence again and again with the distance between himself and Donald Trump. That boiled down to one attack over all: “why won’t Donald Trump release his tax returns?” Party spinners had clearly concluded they’d only get one possible, erm, get, from the debate, and that was it.
[Rundle: the unsinkable Donald Trump]
Kaine, as a good soldier, forewent the chance to defend himself, attack on wider policy questions, or spruik his own possible role in the administration — “cream or half-and-half, Madame President?” — to get that attack in. He interrupted relentlessly, was scored down for that by the pundits. But to this viewer it was a possible tactical victory with the infinitesimal number of people he was trying to reach: swing-state politics wonks, who were considering a Trump vote. Most likely, though, the whole evening won’t mean a pinch of piss.
“How do you score that?” I asked the guy beside me.
“About a draw,” he burped.
“Are you Dem or GOP?”
“I’m a rationalist, man.”
“I always vote against the incumbent.”
The Uber back was chemtrails lady. Of course a Trump voter.
“He’s against the elite.”
“The ones digging the tunnels?”
“But he’s a member of the elite himself, a rich guy, ripping off little people …”
“Oh yeah, but that’s not the elite I’m worried about.”
Contact high in the Mile High City.
*ironically, Notorious JNG led the charge to stop FDR stacking the Supreme Court with additional justices in the late ’30s, when SCOTUS struck down key New Deal reforms — thus preventing a fuller transformation of US society. He had more influence on the future shape of the country than several presidents.
**I offer this for the consideration of the Chester A. Arthur Society. Arthur was VP and ascended to the office after John Garfield was shot by a man angry at not getting a civil service sinecure from the new president. Arthur’s role in history was to get passed the Pendleton Act, which greatly limited the president’s ability to award sinecures. The society is a US history fan club started by Labor Right types, which of course makes it perfectly normal that they would be going to a lot of US-sponsored events, pop into the embassy occasionally, tour the Civil War battlefields in Virginia, near, um, Langley, you know.