In VP debate, Mike Pence, peerless Trump defender, confronts his limitsOctober 8, 2020
Vice President Mike Pence approached his task on Wednesday as he has approached his four years as the executive straight man to an unruly leader: not merely defending President Donald Trump but effectively insisting, with straight-faced conviction, that those who doubt his boss should not believe their eyes and ears.
The trouble this time was not Pence’s skill set on this front, which remains peerless. It was the fact set underpinning this debate, which remains inconvenient to an administration so overwhelmed by the virus that its own West Wing has become a hot spot.
And so Pence — stripped of most politically palatable explanations for the White House pandemic response — set off on a curious charge when Sen. Kamala Harris said that the Trump team’s leadership “clearly hasn’t worked”: He chose to hear it as a direct affront to the American people.
“When you say what the American people have done over these last eight months hasn’t worked,” Pence said gravely, as controlled as his president is rambunctious onstage, “that’s a great disservice to the sacrifices the American people have made.”
At last, the strain seemed to be showing, at least a little. Perhaps that is what a full term of wear-and-tear can do to even the most accomplished rhetorical gymnast.
Or perhaps the reality is simply too bleak for any administration to explain away entirely: The president has contracted the virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans on his watch. His behavior, since leaving the hospital on Monday, appears to be a continuation of the kind of scientifically dubious happy talk that has left the Trump-Pence ticket at a significant polling disadvantage four weeks before Election Day.
Even the stagecraft on Wednesday included a conspicuous reminder of the administration’s failings: Plexiglas barriers separated the candidates, owing to the virus’s march through the ranks of the capital.
But Pence also knows his template by now: a neighborly gaze, a shake of the head, a rose-colored rebuttal delivered with the generic tranquility of a greeting card.
“There’s not a day gone by that I haven’t thought of every American family that’s lost a loved one,” he said, flashing the kind of empathy generally shunned by Trump. “And I want all of you to know that you’ll always be in our hearts and in our prayers.”
It felt at times like the ultimate test of Pence’s long-standing exercise in Trump translation for those who might find the president objectionable.
Where others see chaos, the vice president unfurled paeans to Trump’s purported steadiness. Where experts have faulted the administration for a reckless indifference to medical guidance, Pence said they had saved many lives. Where skeptics identify Trump as he appears to them — rash, myopic, consumed with appearances, according to even his own advisers — Pence dwelled on the president he chooses to see.
“From the very first day,” he maintained, “President Donald Trump has put the health of America first.”
For Harris, the mandate was in some ways less complicated. While she had the semiawkward task of boosting a nominee, Joe Biden, whom she famously hammered at a debate during the Democratic primary last year, Harris and Biden have not overseen the present national crises. They do not have to answer for shortcomings in the federal coronavirus response.
Facing Pence, Harris was very much the candidate Democrats might remember from her own presidential run: undeniable talent — and more than a few ably deployed preplanned attacks — mixed with occasional shakiness when there was no obvious script to follow, including an evasive exchange about whether she supports adding seats to the Supreme Court.
But by and large, her argument — like the Democrats’ generally — was often quite straightforward: Look around. Have things gone well?
“The American people have had to sacrifice far too much,” Harris said, “because of the incompetence of this administration.”
Ceding virtually no ground to criticisms of the administration’s pandemic performance, Pence made an adamant case that the country was humming, especially economically, before the virus felled Trump’s momentum — and would be again, if only Americans allow them to stay at the controls.
Through it all, Pence demonstrated that he was a master of running out the clock without answering the question. When asked whether voters deserved to know the truth about the president’s health, Pence bought time by thanking the moderator (it was not clear for what) and thanking his opponent.
He lauded the “exceptional” doctors at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and said he was grateful for bipartisan well-wishes that the president would recover from the virus.
“The American people have a right to know about the health and well-being of their president,” he said, claiming baselessly that there had been “transparency” since Trump’s diagnosis, and smoothly moving on.
When asked directly about what states would do if the court overturned Roe v. Wade — an issue that could alienate the suburban women voters the Trump ticket needs — Pence talked about the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. He then attacked Democrats for raising questions about Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Christian faith, which prominent Democrats have studiously avoided doing since her selection.
The debate moved on. He later restated his bona fides as a “pro-life” politician without stating how he would want the state he once governed to change its laws.
He also politely plowed through his time limits, and in his measured voice made wildly inaccurate claims about what the administration has done. “The climate is changing, we’ll follow the science,” he said. (When Trump visited California last month, for a briefing on the wildfires ravaging the West, he said the opposite. “I don’t think science knows, actually,” he said, when challenged that there was more behind the fires than forest management.)
The electoral value of Pence’s careful rebranding of the Trump years is far from certain. Polls show most voters quite firm in their views of the race, and vice-presidential debates are rarely decisive events, at least in less disorienting times.
If nothing else, Republicans hope, Pence demonstrated the potential benefits of a more disciplined approach to reelection, one that Trump has never pursued.
Campaign aides had been hoping the debate would be an opportunity for a reset after one of its most damaging weeks, a moment when the spotlight could shift away from a sick president and allow his lieutenant’s smooth baritone to reassure anxious seniors about the administration’s stewardship during the virus outbreak.
But those who know Trump suspected that no matter how well Pence acquitted himself on Wednesday, the president would invariably return the subject to himself before long, whether or not this was politically wise.
Maybe this is why Pence has generally carried himself with a narrow set of goals in mind: project loyalty, yes, but also stay functionally uninteresting — partly because of his temperament and partly by design, lest the president ever feel threatened.
The result, particularly relative to the presidential debate last week, was a gathering marked by far less chaos and manifest hostility. So unsurprising were the proceedings, by and large, that the most unpredictable moment may have been a black bug settling into Pence’s sweep of white hair during remarks about law enforcement.
All night, he took care to be unfailingly polite, thanking Harris and Biden for expressing “genuine concern” for Trump’s health and congratulating her on “the historic nature of your nomination.”
As in his television interviews and stump speeches as vice president, Pence — widely thought to have an eye on a presidential run himself — allowed almost no daylight between himself and Trump.
Despite the fact that the defining characteristic of his tenure has been loyalty, the noises about Pence’s would-be replacements as running mate were not even quieted by his acceptance of the nomination at the convention in August.
Still, it is weeks like this that show why those casual conversations never blossomed into serious considerations. Pence is the unswerving associate, what his advisers describe as a “game day player.”
Harris’ debate record was less consistent entering Wednesday, with former aides describing a hyperpreparedness that has served her well in major Senate committee hearings but a penchant for political stumbles at times when she is required to think on her feet.
At one point on Wednesday, pressed on her position about expanding the size of the Supreme Court, Harris tried to steer the discussion to Lincoln-era history.
“I just want the record to reflect she never answered the question,” Pence said.
Like Pence, Harris is also a figure with presumed presidential aspirations after 2020.
And for all her prominence as a leading anti-Trump Democrat since joining the Senate in 2017, her appearance on Wednesday registered as a new data point in her history-making arc: She is the first Black woman to represent a major-party ticket in a general election debate. That she chose not to linger too long on this fact is at once a signal of the minefields that women of color encounter in national politics — and of how much more there was to talk about, for better or worse.
Harris did repeatedly pause to note Pence’s gentle interruptions. And as a former prosecutor, she said, she would not “sit here and be lectured by the vice president on what it means to enforce the laws of our country.”
As for Harris’ broader aim — tying Pence to the words and deeds of the president — her opponent at times did much of the work.
Toward the end of the debate, Pence was asked about what his role would be if Trump refused a peaceful transfer of power. He did not answer but in his deflection revealed the truth about his role on the ticket: Whatever stylistic differences might make him more acceptable to moderate Republicans, there is never any space between himself and the president.
“I think we’re going to win this election,” Pence said. Then he accused the FBI of spying on the 2016 campaign.