Pressure Is on Pence to Ace the Debate

Pressure Is on Pence to Ace the Debate
Joe Raedle/Pool via AP
Pressure Is on Pence to Ace the Debate
Joe Raedle/Pool via AP
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The stakes couldn’t be much higher for Mike Pence heading into his first and only face-off with Kamala Harris.

Last week’s presidential debate was an unruly slugfest from start to finish, with President Trump getting most of the blame for the constant interruptions and belligerent tone. With the president sidelined from the campaign trail, Pence now has to demonstrate a far calmer and rational side of the administration – to look eminently presidential should Trump’s COVID case somehow take a turn for the worse in the days and weeks ahead. And Pence – reserved by temperament -- has to pull this off while still scoring enough points to avoid appearing weak.

With Joe Biden and Harris expanding their lead in RealClearPolitics’ national polling average  and in battleground polls, the pressure is on the vice president to change the trajectory – and it may be the campaign’s last big chance to do so. It’s the only VP debate, and Biden on Tuesday said he wouldn’t participate in a second presidential debate, scheduled for next week, if Trump remains positive for the virus. The third and final face-off, set for Oct. 22, also hangs in the balance if either the president or Biden decides to back out out.

Late in the 2012 campaign, Biden succeeded in besting Paul Ryan to turn things around after President Obama turned in a less-than-stellar first debate performance against Mitt Romney. The same was true eight years earlier when Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly smacked down John Edwards and helped provide the course correction George W. Bush’s reelection campaign needed.

“The last two incumbent presidents relied on sitting VPs to show up and trounce the competition after a lackluster first debate,” Republican commentator Scott Jennings said in a tweet Tuesday. “Can Mike Pence make it three in a row?”

With both presidential candidates in their 70s – Trump is 74 and Biden is 77 -- their running mates’ relative youth is an obvious counterbalance and also puts more of a spotlight on their ability to step into the presidential role if either man at the top of the ticket is unable to finish his term. Pence is 61 while Harris is 55.  

Pence had no problem counter-punching in a civil and substantive way four years ago against Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate. But he was doing so against a fellow late-50s male known more for his congeniality on Capitol Hill than his sharp-tongued barbs. Some political observers labeled the tete-a-tete milquetoast vs. mayonnaise, but it was a traditional verbal back-and-forth over policy differences, and most cited Pence as the victor.

Taking the fight to Harris will be a far more delicate balancing act. As the first woman of color on a presidential ticket and after months of violent racial unrest across the country, Pence must be careful not to lecture about race relations or try to drive home the president’s forceful law-and-order campaign message to a prosecutor who has faced criticism herself for taking the law too far and locking up too many people for lesser crimes.

Before Trump’s positive COVID test, Harris was reportedly planning to go on the offensive, blaming the administration once again for the more than 210,000 U.S. coronavirus deaths, trying to dismantle Obamacare and for pushing forward on a Supreme Court nominee after holding up President Obama’s court choice during the last presidential election year. With Trump still sick, (though he professes to feeling better than he has in 20 years), Harris is said to be planning to tone down her zingers while still holding Pence responsible for Trump’s record.

The Trump campaign says Harris will spend plenty of time on defense after her inclusion on the ticket helped push Biden to the far left on several issues. “She’ll have to defend Biden’s $4 trillion tax increase, support of the Green New Deal and promise of amnesty for 11 million illegal aliens,” Trump 2020 Communications Director Tim Murtaugh said in a statement.

She also remains a co-sponsor of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” bill, which would eliminate private employer-provided health insurance plans for an estimated 180 million Americans. By the end of the Democratic primary, Harris said she no longer supported Sanders plan, and her late shift on the issue exposed her as a candidate torn between appealing to liberals demanding structural change and centrists favoring incrementalism.

Harris has recently tried to downplay debate expectations for herself, while raising them for Pence. “Let me just say something: He’s a good debater,” Harris said during a virtual fundraiser last month. “So I’m concerned, like I can only disappoint.”

By now, Pence is used to playing good cop to Trump’s bad one. As a former radio talk show host, he knows how to serve up disciplined sound bites aimed at a target audience. But no one expects Harris to make it easy for him or to pull her punches after her record of fierce attacks against Biden and other opponents in the Democratic primary debates.

Harris also got a timely assist from Michelle Obama, the most admired woman in the world two years running, according to a Gallup survey taken last December. The former first lady chose the day before the vice presidential debate to make her closing campaign pitch, labeling Trump “racist” for stoking fears about minorities taking over the suburbs and exhorting Americans to vote for Joe Biden “like your lives depend on it.”

It’s a tall order for the mild-mannered Pence, the former governor of Indiana, a state that is 88% white. While one of the most disciplined messengers in the administration, he’s also deeply committed Christian who strives to take the high road while being forced to defend Trump’s taunting and low-road tendencies.  But Pence’s friends and colleagues argue he’s more than up to the task – even with the additional drama of Trump’s COVID diagnosis looming large in the background.

“You’re just a heartbeat away from having the top job in the world,” remarked Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, an Indiana radio host and friend of Pence who worked at the same radio station, where they overlapped for few years in the early 1990s. “And so while I believe Mike is a servant leader and he wants the best for Donald Trump and Melania and anybody else impacted by COVID-19, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t think, “Hey, you know, I might be president.’” 

As Trump’s chief of the White House coronavirus task force, leading the administration’s response to the pandemic, Pence lived and breathed the country’s battle against the virus for months and won’t be easily thrown off by broad criticisms or generalizations about the administration’s response, supporters say.

“He is well-prepared. He has the policy weapons that he needs and he has the temperament – he knows how to stay collected,” Ken Blackwell, a prominent black Republican, former Ohio state treasurer and a longtime friend of the vice president, told RealClearPolitics.

Blackwell describes Pence as smooth and respectful but powerful nonetheless. During the Kaine debate, he often reacted by scrunching his nose and flashing a little smile while shaking his head. Blackwell also said his friend has been attacked relentlessly for his faith and naturally adheres to lessons Blackwell shared with him, gleaned from a confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., a Jewish rabbi named Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Heschel, Blackwell recalled, always urged both sides in a contentious policy debate to “respect the differences and dignity in others.”

“There’s nothing in his experience where people can say this guy has one iota of hate in him,” Blackwell said of Pence.  

Many have taken issue with the vice president’s nice-guy reputation, pointing to Pence’s previous opposition to same-sex marriage and related issues impacting the LGBTQ Americans. The issue of LGBTQ rights could come up after Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito issued a broadside against the high court’s same-sex marriage decision on Monday when the court declined to hear a case brought by a former Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue a marriage license for same-sex couples.

Years ago, the issue of gay rights tripped up Pence while he was still Indiana governor. In the spring of 2015, the state legislature passed a religious freedom law that focused a white-hot national spotlight on the state. While lauded by religious conservatives, others, including LGBTQ activists and some in the business community, blasted it for legalizing discrimination and arguing that it would drive companies out of Indiana.

With support from religious conservatives, including some rabbis and Muslim leaders along with the Christian right, Pence initially dug in his heels but later supported a legislative fix intended to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination.

“Seeing coverage that really just beat the hell out of Indiana threw him,” Shabazz recalled. “That threw him off because he loves the state, loves the people, the whole nine yards, and when he saw that, he kind of lost it.”

Some Harris supporters have been pressing the VP nominee to go on the attack since the day Biden announced her as his running mate. “I will take EXTREME pleasure watching Kamala Harris eat Mike Pence alive in a debate,” tweeted Adam Rippon, a figure skater who voiced opposition to Pence leading the 2018 Olympic delegation because of his record on LGBTQ issues.

Buoyed now by years of experience and scrutiny, Pence knows how to deftly field questions accusing him of LGBTQ intolerance, Blackwell says.

“Because you have the religious belief that marriage is between one man and one woman doesn’t mean you attack the human dignity of someone who happens to be gay,” Blackwell explained. “By now [same-sex marriage law] is well-established. You hold to your religious beliefs but you respect the law.”

The two sides gave a preview of their match-up Tuesday while sparring over whether Pence should have plexiglass partitions around him at Wednesday night’s debate. The debate commission first said it would employ them because of the spread of coronavirus infection among White House staffers. Pence objected, and the commission said it will allow him to participate without a partition but would permit Harris to erect barriers separating herself from the vice president. Unlike last week’s presidential debate, where Trump family members and aides were allowed to remain in their seats without wearing masks, the debate commission is now requiring audience members to wear masks or leave.

Multiple Pence aides questioned the use of plexiglass around him if he was already socially distanced from Harris and has consistently tested negative for the virus. Physical barriers such as plexiglass are typically recommended when social distancing cannot be maintained, and the candidates will be separated by 12 feet on stage.

“We have yet to hear medical evidence what the plexiglass is for,” Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, told CNN Tuesday.

Harris campaign spokeswoman Sabrina Singh seized on the comments, arguing that it proves the administration’s war on masks has morphed into something more: “If the Trump administration’s war on masks has now become a war on safety shields, that tells you everything you need to know about why their COVID response is a failure.”

Pence so far has not responded, content to let their argument stand – until both sides take the stage. Republicans close to him have said they expect it to be a far calmer, policy-oriented exercise than last week’s presidential bruiser.

Blackwell agreed, and warned his friend not to get too wonky and too caught up in discussing “virus protocols and therapeutics,” thus losing the chance to connect directly to the American people. “He needs to respond from experience and in terms that aren’t just about policy but about human experience when talking about COVID-19 … about the courage of the folks who are pushing through some of these difficulties.”

And, Blackwell said, he’s confident that he’ll strike the right balance.

“Mike will be able to demonstrate that he agrees with the president that we should not be paralyzed by fear of the virus, but we also need to be smart about safeguards, as well as the inter-connectedness of the economic collapse and the ability to fight the virus. It’s not an either-or situation, and Pence knows how to convey that.”

Philip Wegmann contributed to this report. 

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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