Cushman: The VP Debate Exposed American Voters’ Flawed Focus


Photo by Lawrence Jackson / Biden for President (Courtesy Flickr)

By KC Ellen Cushman, Opinion Writer


Kamala Harris and Mike Pence kept a strong focus on their running mates during this week’s vice-presidential debate. This choice was not unique — vice presidential candidates often spend their speaking time at debates and campaign events to bolster their running mate — but it made me think even more about the importance Americans place on presidential candidates and elections. Much of this attention is misplaced.

The Cabinet

This year’s presidential election is a face-off between the two oldest presidential candidates in American history. Health complications for the winner of this year’s election could result in one of the current vice presidential candidates becoming our president. As potential presidents, the American people have a vested interest in knowing that the vice presidential candidates will represent them.

Looking outside of the possibility that Harris or Pence could become president, vice presidents have the ability to heavily influence White House policy through their position as a major advisor to the president. During George Bush’s presidency, for example, Vice President Dick Cheney held an incredible amount of power. He was able to help reshape national security policy, helped screen Supreme Court nominees, worked to expand the executive branch, set up secret domestic surveillance and helped persuade President Bush to begin the Iraq War.

The vice president has the ability to change the direction of our nation, yet at the vice presidential debate, we heard little of Pence and Harris’ individual beliefs. Responses, in typical vice presidential debate fashion, were focused on what Trump and Biden believe. The president and vice president act as partners and frequently speak for each other, but often we only get to see one of them, the president, as an individual. Vice presidents are not given the same level of individual interest despite the fact that they have the potential to forge White House policy alongside their presidential teammate and could be our president.

Furthermore, a president’s entire cabinet, not just their vice president, is integral in building an administration’s direction. When we elect a president, we are not just electing that one person into office. We are, in a way, also electing the cabinet members they appoint. We need to focus less on just the president we vote for and more on the entire cabinet they will carry into office with them — together they have a broad reach into our lives and our country’s future.

The Legislature

Our constitution gives the legislature the power of the purse as well as the ability to act as a check on the other branches. Our legislature was specifically designed to have a large impact on our day to day lives. It is the branch that creates the laws that govern us. It is also designed to protect us from overreach by other branches. But voter turnout demonstrates that American voters care more about presidential elections than congressional elections. In recent years, presidential elections received about 60% voter turnout but with midterms were much closer to 40%.

By not focusing on legislative elections, we allow massive missteps by our legislative leaders. Over the last thirty years, executive power has seen continuous growth with little to no check by the legislature. Most Americans do not trust congressional members to have high ethical standards or perform their job well. Our congressional leaders represent us much more intimately than our executive leaders do. But we need to hold our congressional leaders to high standards to ensure that our representatives represent our communities accurately — we need to use our civic power. We need to engage with congressional elections at the same scale we engage with the presidential elections that often impact our lives in less profound ways.

Local Government

Even closer to us than our congressional leaders are our local government officials. Having worked in local government before, I have a deep appreciation for the way our city and county leaders impact our lives in very meaningful ways. The parks, museums and schools in our neighborhoods are funded by our local leaders. The streets we drive on and the communities we live in are planned by our city and county officials. Things that impact us daily, like the cost of food and rent are heavily impacted by the decisions of our local leaders.

Despite the intimate and integral nature of our relationship with local leadership, voter turnout in local elections still remains low across much of the nation. Even in Utah, a state that has led the charge in certain voting initiatives like mail-in ballots, local election turnout has struggled in previous years. Our local leaders have a more powerful effect on our lives each day than state and federal leaders. They know the strengths of our communities and the areas that we want to improve because they live here with us. The decisions they make are important. They should be important to us as voters.

It can be easy to get caught up in the highly funded, exciting and often explosive presidential campaign season or in the personalities of charismatic presidential candidates. However, widening our focus to include the candidates who know us better and affect us more deeply will only help us. It will make our communities happier and healthier and it will make us better-represented constituents.


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