The vice-presidential debate, unlike the presidential debate, was an actual debate with a coherent exchange of views, rather than the spectacle of a deranged narcissist trying to induce his opponent to undergo a mental breakdown. Mike Pence is about twice as articulate a speaker as Donald Trump. His problem is that Kamala Harris is about ten times as articulate as Joe Biden.
Harris delivers cleaner hits on Trump than Biden did
Harris covered many of the same attacks on the administration’s record that Biden attempted to deliver, but she delivered them more crisply — partly because she is a sharper speaker than her running mate, and partly because she was not trying to get her lines out over manic interruptions.
Harris worked into an unrelated question an attack on Trump’s $750 income-tax payment and $400 million in debt to undisclosed parties. (Pence did not deny this, merely saying, “The president denies it.”) She repeatedly cited the Trump administration’s lawsuit to eliminate Obamacare, which would end protections for patients with preexisting conditions, at one point warning starkly, “They’re coming for you.”
At times, Harris seemed to anticipate Pence’s defense of the Trump administration and teed up attack lines that demolished them. When Pence claimed the administration had stopped the coronavirus by banning travel from China, she answered, “Whatever the vice-president is claiming the administration has done, it hasn’t worked.” When Pence repeated Trump’s defense that he lied about the severity of the pandemic in order to keep the public calm, she rattled off a litany of moments when people felt anything but: “How calm were you when you were panicked about where you’re going to get your next roll of toilet paper? How calm were you when your kids were sent home from school and you didn’t know when they could go back?How calm were you when your children couldn’t see your parents because you were afraid they could kill them?” The Trump campaign had signaled it would use these easily rebutted defenses of its disastrous record, and Harris devastated them.
Pence is better than Harris at avoiding questions
The vice-president set the template for his strategy by not even gesturing at an answer to the first question posed to him. (How could he defend the United States having among the highest death rates from the coronavirus of any wealthy country? Answer: He didn’t try.) It’s common for politicians to avoid direct answers of difficult questions, but they usually supply answer-adjacent material that at least touches on subject matter related to the question. Pence did not bother with this, and used it to his advantage, taking every opportunity to speak to select whatever topic he wanted.
His best moment, and Harris’s worst, was telling. Pence was asked by Susan Page what his administration would do to protect people who have preexisting conditions if it won its lawsuit to eliminate Obamacare. He ignored the question and mentioned court packing, asking Harris if she would forswear the tactic. Harris’s dodge was far more visible, because Pence repeatedly pointed out that she refused to answer the question, something she did not do to him. And Pence’s realization he could avoid difficult questions without being called on it allowed him to keep doing so.
Pence is living in the Reagan era
One reason some conservative elites who feel embarrassed by Trump love Pence is that Pence is immersed in conservative-movement dogma. And while Pence never distances himself from Trump, he has an instinctive belief that he could fare much better than his boss by avoiding theatrics and sticking to party orthodoxy.
What Pence does not seem to grasp is that public opinion is in a different place than it was when Ronald Reagan was alive. Pence seemed to think any big government plan he could associate with the Democrats would work to their disadvantage. Pence attacked Harris for questioning the verdict in the killing of Breonna Taylor and asserting that there is systemic racism, as if white racial attitudes were stuck in the era of Bernhard Goetz and O.J. Simpson.
Pence called Obamacare “a disaster.” But Obamacare has the approval of 62 percent of the public. He boasted about withdrawing from the Paris climate accords, but 70 percent of the country favors staying in that agreement, and Trump’s withdrawal was opposed by a two-to-one margin.
Pence’s most telling evasion came near the end, when he was asked what he would do if Trump refused to allow a peaceful transfer of power. Like Trump, he insisted simply that Trump would win and accused Democrats of voter fraud. He did not promise to follow the law or respect the election returns.
If Pence’s performance was an indication of what a non-Trump Republican candidacy might look like, it was also a reminder of why Trump has blended so easily into the party that once resisted him. His differences with Trump are mainly cosmetic.