Tonight's veep debate

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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It is one of the more remarkable facts about this remarkable election cycle that both vice presidential candidates, Gov. Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Kaine, would more plausibly be successful presidents than either Secretary Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. So tonight's debate will contain a bit of wistfulness for partisans on both sides. "If only we had a candidate who had not set up a private email server," you will hear the Democrats whispering. "If only we had nominated a governor who did not lie with every other breath and offend a key constituency on every third!" the Republicans will say to themselves.

Interestingly, the most memorable moment in a national vice presidential debate happened during the 1988 encounter when Sen. Dan Quayle explained that John F. Kennedy was younger than he was when he ran for the presidency. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen delivered this famous riposte which lost none of its magic because it was so obviously planned and has lost none of its power all these years later. Here it is: 

And in 2008, in one of the shockers of all time, Gov. Sarah Palin held her own against Sen. Joe Biden in the vice presidential debate. The others seem to fade from memory, but the same can be said for most presidential debates, too.

As much as we might prefer to see the order of both tickets reversed, both vice presidential candidates have some explaining to do. The moderator, Elaine Quijano, has no obligation to ask candidates questions about how their religion affects their politics, but I hope she does. Their answers would not only be interesting per se, they would enlighten us on how these candidates have evolved as politicians and as persons over time.

I am interested to know how Kaine explains his evolution from a mostly pro-life candidate when he ran for governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2005 to his current position of mostly supporting the unlimited access to abortion at all times and for any reason that his running mate has made a central part of her political focus for her entire life. I am interested to know how much of it was pure opportunism, which is not entirely unexpected with politicians, or if he had some experience that led him to view the issue differently. I am interested to know whether he agrees that Clinton holds the most extreme pro-abortion positions of any candidate in American history, positions that are far outside the mainstream among Western democracies, or if he agrees with Planned Parenthood and NARAL that any restriction on abortion amounts to an enslavement of women. (And if so, does he also think the women of France and Italy and Germany are enslaved?) These questions are not negligible, nor are they really Catholic-specific. Our founding documents guarantee the right to life, after all.

If Kaine is to be held accountable for the extreme positions of his running mate on abortion, that means that Pence must be expected to explain his stance on Trump's extreme positions on, well, everything. I do not envy the man that task. In addition to that, however, I do think it is fair to ask Pence what he learned about religious liberty and its limits in his state's ham-handed attempt to pass a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the proponents of which were extolling precisely because it would have allowed them to discriminate against gay and lesbian Americans. I remain a fan of RFRAs, provided they are not used to justify discrimination except in areas of obvious religious significance. No church or synagogue or mosque should be forced to employ someone in a ministerial position who does not hold the views they are called upon to teach. A school affiliated with church or synagogue or mosque should be able to give preferential enrollment and hiring to co-religionists for the simple reason that you can't have a Catholic university without Catholics or a Methodist high school without Methodists. The baker who doesn't want to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple? Sorry. If you are a businessperson providing a service to the public, that service has to be available to everyone.

The question I really, really want to ask Pence, however, is entirely different. The last 48 hours have been dominated by the New York Times story about Trump's taxes. Most of that coverage has focused on whether Trump did or did not pay taxes for however many years. My question is more basic: What does Pence think of the corporate welfare this story demonstrates, and why does the Trump-Pence tax proposal do nothing to address such corporate welfare? If I plant a new garden, and I do not take the time to till the soil, and the plants all die, the government does not reimburse me. Why do we reimburse Trump Inc. for bad business decisions?

One never knows how a moderator's research team does its work. We can hope they do not encourage Quijano to go down the rabbit hole dug by the rightwing group In a truly bizarre memo, they linked Kaine to a Jesuit priest who was heavily involved in liberation theology, Fr. James Carney, from his time in Honduras. The memo states:

During his stay in Honduras, Kaine openly embraced liberation theology, a controversial political ideology cloaked in Catholic teaching but radically at odds with the Catholic Church and with the United States. At the time, this extremist ideology was adopted by activists and even some clergy who were openly hostile to the Church, the Pope, and the United States.

I am no fan of those varieties of liberation theology built upon a shoddy theological anthropology, which was always the church's indictment. Other varieties of liberation theology are much more consonant with our tradition and contain much of value. All varieties were somewhat understandable when you consider the violence, repression and poverty out of which this theology grew. But whatever you think of liberation theology, it is the linking "the Church" and "the United States" in the memo that is really strange, as if one could not ever be in favor of the one without the other.

Does it matter who is the country's vice president? Of course. Think of the number of vice presidents who have been thrust into the top spot in the wake of tragedy. And ever since Walter Mondale reconceived the role of vice president in the 1970s, the job has been akin to that of a first counselor to the president, a far cry from the ticket balancing role, with no subsequent influence, that it had when Kennedy picked Johnson or Eisenhower picked Nixon. And we have one of the nation's first vice presidents and greatest scoundrels to thank for this year's best musical. If Aaron Burr had not shot Alexander Hamilton, would there really have ever been a musical about the guy?

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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