WASHINGTON, October 4, 2016 — Tonight’s vice-presidential debate doesn’t have the star-power of the Clinton-Trump debates, nor the same likelihood of producing a train wreck. It won’t get the same attention from voters.
It should. In normal election cycles, the VP debate often feels like an afterthought. Rarely do voters cast their votes on the basis of the bottom half of the ticket. But this is not a normal election cycle.
First the obvious. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both elderly. Clinton is 68, Trump 70. There are troubling unknowns about the candidates’ health. Clinton has not been physically robust, and given their lapses in judgment, it would be reassuring if both submitted to a neurological assessment. Neither seems inclined to do so, forcing us to trust in notes from their doctors.
The odds are good that within four years, at least one of the two will be seriously ill, mentally impaired or dead. If it is the one in office, the 25th Amendment will have come into play. The vice-presidential choice will prove critical.
The obvious isn’t just that these two candidates are elderly, but also unusually prone to ethical lapses. Clinton has been heavily investigated and never formally accused of a crime, but she is clearly unable to see ethical lines:
- She pushed for the firing of the White House travel office employees so that Clinton supporters could “fill those slots,” denied knowing anything about it, admitted knowing about it but denied substantive input, and finally was revealed to have been the prime mover in that sorry mess. For good measure, the FBI was called in to investigate the office head for criminal behavior, he was tried, and ultimately found not guilty.
- Before Clinton made millions speaking to financial firms, she made almost $100,000 on a $1,000 investment. She said she did it on her own, then admitted that she did it with the help of Tyson Foods’ outside counsel. This was at a time when Tyson was not being forced by Governor Clinton’s administration in Arkansas to deal assertively with its contamination of a town’s drinking water.
- Clinton’s honesty about her use of a private email server, deleted work-related documents and classified information are recent and well-known.
- The Clinton Foundation as political slush fund and access point to Clinton is a story that may get new legs with the report that Guccifer 2.0 hacked the Foundation’s server and took hundreds of thousands of files.
Donald Trump’s own inability to see ethical (and possibly legal) lines is equally impressive.
- Trump University is one of Trump’s failed businesses, described by its own employees as a giant ripoff, and by the state of New York as a classic bait and switch scheme. “Good business,” Trump might say, but he sold individual students up to $35,000 in seminars, bilking them of $40 million by sales scripts that preyed on customer fears.
- Trump has refused to pay hundreds of contractors and workers, and in some cases, even his own lawyers. He has often stiffed small business that have failed afterwards, claiming that their work was shoddy and incomplete. But the pattern of non-payment is so extensive that that excuse seems unlikely. Again, Trump might argue that he’s simply a hard bargainer doing smart business, but in the process he’s ruined hundreds of ordinary people in their own businesses.
- There is evidence that the Trump organization has been doing business in Cuba since the 1990s, in violation of the financial and trade embargo on Cuba. Trump spent at least $68,000 in Cuba in 1998, funneling the money through a consulting firm and linking it to a charitable effort.
- Trump admits to being very smart with his income taxes. Everyone who pays much in taxes wants a good accountant or tax lawyer to help them play smart, but being too smart can be a problem. It remains to be seen just how smart Trump was.
Either a Trump or Clinton presidency is likely to be a feast for connoisseurs of scandal. We may have our best chance in 20 years of an impeachment.
Mike Pence and Tim Kaine, however, are both refreshingly normal, deliciously bland.
Both men were raised as Irish Catholics. Kaine was a Catholic missionary in Honduras and is fluent in Spanish. Pence was a Catholic youth minister, but has since affiliated with an evangelical church.
Each is popular in his own state, and both have solid careers in politics and public service. Pence is currently governor of Indiana, serving for 10 years prior to that as a U.S. representative. Kaine is a U.S. senator from Virginia, and before that was Virginia’s governor.
The two men are ideologically distinct. Pence is a strong conservative, Kaine a clear liberal. Pence is well known for having signed into law a state religious freedom act that drew heavy criticism and threats of business boycotts.
The debate is between two men who should be at the top of their party tickets, not the bottom. You might have strong ideological objections to one or both, but neither has demonstrated the character flaws of their running mates.
That is no guarantee that their debate will be substantive. The primary focus is likely to be Clinton and Trump. Nevertheless, this debate is worth watching. One of these men has a better than usual chance of taking over the top job.