You've got to feel for Mike Pence and Tim Kaine. They're the lounge jazz combo waiting to go onstage after the Sex Pistols.
Pundits have tried to stoke enthusiasm for Tuesday night's vice presidential candidates' debate, noting that Pence and Kaine are likely to have a more substantive back-and-forth about the major issues facing this country. Civil, competent and unburdened by the weight of charisma, these two men are expected to lay out the clear differences in governing philosophy between the Republican and Democratic tickets.
But come on, does anybody really care? This election is uniquely about the ultra-polarizing figures at the top of the ticket: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The latter has spoken at length and in depth about issue after issue, yet that's all "blah, blah, blah" to a public that's more concerned with her character and trustworthiness than her (spectacular) policy chops. And Trump can't seem to speak at length or in depth about anything without careening off-message. Even when he does focus, he remains vague about details. His plan to defeat Islamic State is just one of his many secret blueprints.
Beyond that, we really don't have much left to learn. If you pay any attention to politics, you already know that Republicans today are the party of small government, gigantic defense budgets, border walls and tax cuts to stimulate the economy. They'd like Washington to regulate less, enforce less and, well, do less. And Democrats today are the party of activist government, defense cuts, equal rights for every conceivable interest group and tax hikes to tamp down income inequality. They'd like Washington to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, even if it requires Auto-Tune.
One of these philosophies may appeal to you more than the other. But again, if you've been paying even a wee bit of attention, you also know that the parties have become so entrenched and uncompromising that Congress and the White House are barely able to do the routine work of governing, let alone tackle the signature problems of our day.
Both sides may be deeply troubled by slow economic growth, but there is precisely zero chance of them agreeing on a plan to do anything significant about it. Ditto for the country's malfunctioning immigration laws, the inexorable rise in healthcare costs, the rising national debt and the increasing share of the economy that's consumed by Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest payments.
So what do you want Pence or Kaine to say?
If this were a conventional election, it might be useful to hear what sort of influence the vice presidential nominees might have over their running mates. Pence is much more conservative, fiscally and socially, than Trump. Kaine seems more centrist than the current version of Clinton, although right in line with where she was in the 1990s. (And even Kaine isn't immune to the powerful forces pulling Democrats in Washington ever leftward.)
But this isn't a conventional election. This isn't about weighing the relative merits of two tickets; it's about the incendiary figures at the top. It wouldn't matter if the vice presidential nominees were Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
Trump is, on many levels, the nominee least fit for the White House that the Republicans have ever backed. He will offend people and break things, and that's all that matters to his supporters. If the Democrats had nominated anybody else for president, this race probably wouldn't be close. But they nominated Clinton, who carries more baggage (deservedly or not) than Southwest Airlines.
So tune in Tuesday if you must. But whatever Pence and Kaine say will soon be lost in the blizzard of bizarre Trump tweets, another hacked email or the next turn in the Clinton private-server screw. The Sex Pistols go back on tour Wednesday, coming soon to a voting both near you.