The most important vice presidential debate in American history

Vice President Mike Pence addresses supporters on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, at Midwest Manufacturing in Eau Claire, Wis. Pence toured the facility and addressed supporters as part of a "Made in America" event stressing the importance of the American manufacturing industry.MJS-pence25p1

Wednesday night’s debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris will be the most important of its kind since VP debates began 40 years ago. While VP debates see less fanfare than the sparring matches at the top of the ticket, the 2020 races and the unique events surrounding it have made the Pence-Harris faceoff especially newsworthy.

As the president lays in Walter Reed hospital, battling a virus that has already killed 210,000 Americans, we are reminded that the vice president is a heartbeat away from the presidency. And given the experiences of some COVID-19 patients, often referred to as the “long-haulers,” questions about presidential incapacitation have taken center stage.

Vice presidential debates tend to be boring events focused on how best a candidate would help the president if elected and what types of policies an administration would pursue. In the background of these debates is always the recognition that either individual must be ready to become president, if their ticket succeeds. However, the 2020 race offers us the two oldest presidential nominees in American history. One of whom is currently battling a serious health crisis—President Donald Trump—and another who has dealt with series health challenges in the 1980s—former Vice President Joe Biden. Whether Mr. Trump is reelected or Mr. Biden wins next month, they will be sworn in during a deadly pandemic that has proved to be particularly dangerous to older men. And Americans will be watching the VP debate with renewed awareness that one of those two individuals could easily become president—not because they ran for the office but because they succeeded to the office.

The VP debate will take place in a largely empty hall on the campus of the University of Utah. The candidates will be significantly distanced—more so than normal. They will be barred from the traditional physical contact: a handshake prior to and after the debate and a side by side photo-op for posterity. But debate moderator, Susan Page, will also likely pepper the two nominees with a series of questions that focus—more than ever—on succession, health, wellness, and the 25th Amendment. While an open discussion of an incapacitated or dead president may seem macabre, Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Biden’s age and health history demand it.

In a normal election year, vice presidential candidates often serve as presidential nominees’ attack dogs, and surely, there will be plenty of attacks and criticisms during the debate. However, this is hardly a normal year. While vice presidential candidates almost always wish to project a presidential aura and command at the debate, that approach is paramount Wednesday night. It will be important for both candidates to steer away from outright political warfare and focus on the solemn reality of a country with an ill president and facing multiple other crises.

Vice President Pence should do well. His personality, as we’ve seen in his press conferences on COVID-19, is calm, controlled, and steady. Those are attributes that will help him in the debate setting. However, his presence and rhetoric frequently exude a sense of a submissive ‘yes-man’ to a domineering president. Cool, calm, and collected will play well in the debate; obedient and obsequious will not. He must not only appear ready to take over the presidency if necessary, but he needs to show himself to be capable of being a strong leader in his own right, ready to captain his own ship. This will be a departure for Mr. Pence—as it would be for any vice president. That challenge is magnified by the need to walk a fine line between showing personal strength and not rattling a cagey, paranoid president who is terrified of being upstaged by any of his team members.

For Ms. Harris, who showed herself to be an effective and powerful debater during the primaries, it is critical to revise an approach that worked well for her in the summer and fall. Her tenacious, prosecutorial approach to leveling candidates—including Mr. Biden—showed her strength in the political arena. Now, her challenge is to steer away from Kamala Harris, prosecutor, and toward Kamala Harris, president. It would be important for her to focus on the issues that she cares deeply about and would pursue as president. Part of the debate will focus on how she would help Mr. Biden if he is elected president. But the debate performance must also demonstrate who she would be in the absence of Mr. Biden. While America loves a fighter who can match anyone in the political arena (an even more important trait for a female candidate running in a country with significant, remaining gender biases), what America needs right now is a steady, strong, empathetic leader ready to govern independently.

In many ways, Mr. Pence and Ms. Harris are uniquely suited to do what the president could not in the first debate: be the adult in the room and one who demonstrates strength and compassion simultaneously. As parents—Mr. Pence beaming when discussing his daughter’s achievements, Ms. Harris embracing the moniker ‘Mamala’ when discussing her step-kids—each can be the nation’s parent, ready to help when they see a struggle. Both VP nominees can also be for the nation what they are to their families: a rock who is steady and confident.

Mr. Pence and Ms. Harris have the opportunity to do something that the president and former vice president did not last week: be the presidential candidates America wants and needs right now. That is critically true this week with renewed focus on a single reality: one of them may be president sooner than planned.