‘Pence Proved Better at Politics Than His Running Mate’

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Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate between Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence felt at times like a 90-minute throwback to another moment in American politics: two professional, disciplined politicians delivering carefully engineered takedown lines, smiling politely while dodging inconvenient questions.

In one sense, this was the exact kind of politics that Donald Trump has blown up.

But in another, the performance was all a veneer over the bigger issues Trump has brought to the fore, as the candidates sparred over Covid, cops and the fairness of elections. And much as Harris-Pence could be seen as a preview of a post-Trump partisan matchup, it was a much more revealing indicator of how the 70-something men at the top of the ticket are trying to pitch themselves in the last stretch of the campaign with their younger, more disciplined, more predictable mouthpieces.

What really mattered in a debate when the lines in the campaign are already so firmly drawn? Politico Magazine reached out to a group of political operatives and observers and asked them what stood out. As they watched, they saw Harris as a well-briefed prosecutor who “came for Mike Pence and didn’t miss,” but who also wasn’t willing to answer a direct question on the controversial idea of packing the Supreme Court. In Pence, some saw his constant interruptions of both Harris and the moderator as an “obnoxious” performance that would hurt him with suburban women—but others saw him land effective shots on behalf of the administration’s more successful economic messages, the “steady but biting hand that Republicans were eager to see.”

The biggest surprise, perhaps, was the black fly that very visibly perched on Pence’s head for a stretch of the debate, providing a distraction from the grimmer reality overshadowing the evening. As the plexiglas shields reminded viewers, this whole campaign is unfolding in an anything-but-normal pandemic moment. Here’s what our experts saw:

‘The plexiglass … revealed more to voters than 90 minutes of actual discussion ever could’

Jennifer Lawless is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia whose research focuses on political ambition, campaigns and elections, and media and politics.

The most revealing moment of the vice-presidential debate came before the candidates uttered a word. The minute the plexiglass went up, Covid took center stage. And viewers saw—quite literally—two candidates separated not only by their race, sex, partisan identification and political views, but also by 12 feet of distance and physical dividers to protect themselves from a deadly virus.

Every topic the candidates addressed, every answer they gave, every question they dodged was in the context of the pandemic. Kamala Harris prosecuted the Trump Administration, arguing that its incompetence and hostility toward science has wrought havoc on the nation’s public health, economy and national security. Voters had more than her rhetoric to rely on, though. All they had to do was look at how the stage was arranged to conjure up thoughts of millions of Covid infections, countless examples of economic hardship, and the loss of more than 200,000 American lives. The plexiglass reinforced Harris’ argument that she and Biden trust science and medical professionals—when it comes to a vaccine, climate change and health care—and that Trump and Pence don’t.

Mike Pence, on the other hand, alleged that a Biden-Harris Administration would threaten law and order, raise taxes, impede economic growth and compromise the fight against global terrorism. In a different context, perhaps some of his arguments would have been effective. But there was that plexiglass again, making it difficult for the vice president to make a case for four more years when every shot of the debate stage reminded voters that Covid is out of control and it got that way under Trump and Pence’s watch.

The only thing to give plexiglass a run for its money was the mask Doug Emhoff wore onstage when he congratulated his wife at the end of the debate. It would have been a compelling visual in and of itself, but Karen Pence’s maskless face made the image—and juxtaposition—even more striking.

Much will likely be made of the candidates’ performances—from substance to style to their adherence or disregard for the Debates Commission’s rules—but at the end of the day, the plexiglass and mask that bookended the debate revealed more to voters than 90 minutes of actual discussion ever could.

‘Calmer and more familiar but not much more enlightening’

Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and is writing a history of the Democratic Party.

The first presidential debate was actually a verbal assault, a terribly botched one, by President Donald Trump. Wednesday night’s event between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence was something far calmer and more familiar but not much more enlightening: two veteran politicians whipping through their main charges and promises in a style that may have resonated with their respective bases but probably did little to convince those precious undecided few in the swing states to shift their votes to one ticket or the other.

Both candidates were sharp and animated; neither made any gaffes or claims that will be news to anyone who has been following this intensely followed campaign. Each certainly satisfied the expectations of their fellow partisans. It was refreshing to see a woman of color debate a white man before such a large national audience. But I doubt that demographic “first” will make any significant difference in the race.

But then a vice-presidential candidate almost never helps decide an election; the last one who did was arguably Lyndon Johnson in 1960 who carried Texas, narrowly, for John Kennedy. If the winner of a VP debate really mattered, President Michael Dukakis would have owed a huge debt to his running mate Lloyd Bentsen who, in 1988, destroyed his GOP counterpart Dan Quayle with one memorable line. But of course, Dukakis lost handily that fall to George H.W. Bush. Americans know the only real duties of a vice president are to defend everything their boss says and to stand in waiting for him, and someday her, to get ill or die.

‘That is not a forum Pence likes to be in’

Sophia A. Nelson is an American author, political strategist, opinion writer and former House Republican Committee counsel.

The best line of the night for me was when Senator Kamala Harris said she would take a vaccine if it were recommended by health professionals, but not if it were recommended by Donald Trump. This was a raw, honest, authentic moment where the senator connected with the views of a majority of Americans in polling data over the safety of rushed vaccines. I know I feel the exact same way.

But to me, the debate can be summed up like this: Vice President Mike Pence was rude to the moderator, a woman. And to his opponent, a woman of color. He was monotone. Dry. Feckless. His constant aw-shucks interruptions and usurping of time that was not his to take was annoying. No, not as bad as Trump in the first presidential debate, but he was arrogant. And entitled. And condescending. He was on a stage with two powerful, savvy, smart women. That is not a forum Pence likes to be in.

For her part, Harris did her job: She showed up poised, prepared, powerful, qualified, competent, tough, knowledgeable about foreign affairs and diplomacy, and if needed, ready to be the president of the United States should something happen to a President Joe Biden. She made the country comfortable with her. And for that reason alone, she won the debate, as Pence in my opinion failed to lay a glove on her.

‘Pence’s closing statement didn’t even refer to Trump’

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.

Mike Pence was the unhappy warrior. The boldest thing about him was his red tie. Otherwise he was a study in stolidity, down to remaining impassive as a fly took up residence on his head. Perhaps serving as Donald Trump’s vice president has inured him to any and all humiliations. Still, long Donald Trump’s most unctuous champion, he barely tried to defend him. Pence’s closing statement didn’t even refer to Trump. Instead, his goal was a purely personal one—namely, to preserve his viability in the GOP. Kamala Harris, by contrast, was ebullient. Her message was simple: Come fly away with me.

‘Pence’s performance was just a kinder, gentler version of Trump’s WWE-worthy brawl just one week ago’

Michelle Bernard is a political analyst, lawyer, author, and president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy.

The vice-presidential debate made three things crystal clear: We are not yet a post-racial nation. We are not yet a post-sexist nation. And Mike Pence is nothing more than Donald Trump’s white haired, achromatic, smooth-talking doppelganger.

Like Trump, Pence refused to abide by the rules both campaigns agreed to in advance. Pence’s performance was just a kinder, gentler version of Trump’s WWE-worthy brawl just one week ago.

Pence ran roughshod over the debate moderator and literally stole Sen. Kamala Harris’ speaking time. He repeatedly and intentionally interrupted Harris. He incessantly spoke over Harris. He exceeded the time allotted him to answer questions or rebut statements made by Harris. On at least three occasions, Harris had to remind Pence that she was speaking, thus demanding that he stop interrupting her and allow her to speak. He rarely answered the question asked of him by the moderator, but demanded that Harris answer his questions. He repeatedly glared at Harris. He made sure to pepper his responses with words meant to rile up his base, like “liberal,” “Hillary Clinton,” “pro-life,” “sanctity of human life” and “Dr. Fauci.”

If she were a white male, Harris could have pulled a Biden and told Pence to “shut up.” She could have remarked, “It’s hard to get any word in with this clown.” However, doing so would have meant risking the label of the “angry Black woman” that haunted Michelle Obama during her husband’s first presidential race—and plagues ambitious, forceful Black women to this day.

If she were a white male, she could have pulled a Trump, and turned the tables on the debate moderator for her inability to rein in the smooth-talking Pence. She could have declared, “I guess I’m debating you, not him.”

Watching this debate, it was clear in Pence’s treatment of Harris and the debate moderator that a Trump-Pence administration wants a United States of Gilead, not a United States of America.

‘Kamala Harris did to Mike Pence in 2020 what Mike Pence did to Tim Kaine in 2016’

Alan Schroeder is a professor in the school of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston. Schroeder is the author of several books, including Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail.

Kamala Harris did to Mike Pence in 2020 what Mike Pence did to Tim Kaine in 2016. From the outset, it was obvious that Pence was operating at half-capacity, while Harris bounded onstage ready to engage. Clearly Pence had the more difficult challenge, but even at that he seemed less than fully committed to making the case for another four years of Trumpism. Harris was not a perfect debater—in service of her running mate, she overdid the “Joe believes” bit, and she missed a couple of obvious opportunities to go after the Trump-Pence record—but overall her debut in the national political big-time can only be viewed as an unqualified success.

‘This debate was produced for two different audiences’

Jennifer Victor is a professor of political science at George Mason University, a co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Political Networks and a member of the board of directors of the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

Sadly, the thing people will remember the most from this debate was the black fly that spent about 90 seconds on Mike Pence’s stark white hair. Mercifully, that is an improvement over the previous presidential debate. The vice-presidential debate was substantive, and at times overly gracious, as both candidates set out to prove their ability to step into the role of the president, should the need arise. Kamala Harris had some excellent prepared, but genuinely delivered, answers on Covid, healthcare, and the economy—Democrats’ winning issues this year. Pence’s defenses were deft, and he was prepared with his own zingers.

In the end, the debaters disagreed on facts and policy in all the ways one might expect, but they focused on the big themes their co-partisans expected of them. For Harris, she highlighted empathy, science and Americans’ collective fates; while Pence projected themes of security, threats, and strength.

This debate was produced for two different audiences. Harris delivered knockout punches for Democrats, while Pence was the steady but biting hand that Republicans were eager to see. Few viewers were likely persuaded of anything from this debate, but there was enough substance for each set of partisan viewers to reinforce their pre-existing worldviews. In the end, Pence proved himself to be much better at politics than his running mate, President Donald Trump, but Harris scored more points and proved herself the better debater.

‘The Democratic nominee for vice president came for Mike Pence and didn’t miss’

Michael Starr Hopkins is a Democratic strategist who has served on the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Delaney.

Democrats worried about whether Senator Kamala Harris would play prevent defense had their fears alleviated within the first 30 seconds of the debate. Harris showed exactly why Vice President Joe Biden selected her to be his running mate. When pressed on foreign policy, a topic that has tripped up many a nominee, Harris didn’t just appear in command of the issue, she articulated a clear and cogent doctrine that Americans all over the country could understand. She was presidential.

Harris chopped away at the Trump administration with the precision of a surgeon and the bite of a seasoned attorney—all while smiling. The women in my life felt seen on a stage in Salt Lake City. It meant something to them. The Democratic nominee for vice president came for Mike Pence and didn’t miss.

‘Democrats should be careful preemptively popping the champagne corks’

David Polyansky is a Republican strategist and communications counselor and the president of Clout Public Affairs.

The sharpest and perhaps most important contrast from Wednesday evening: the two parties’ views on the economy and on taxes. On that, Vice President Pence had the upper hand, and it showed. If the race ultimately boils down to pocketbook issues—as it so often does—then Democrats should be careful preemptively popping the champagne corks.

‘While neither performance was particularly revealing, both candidates’ deliveries were exactly what members of their party had hoped for’

Douglas Schoen is a political analyst, campaign consultant and former adviser to President Bill Clinton.

The vice-presidential debate was much better than the one last week between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Differences were stark, positions mostly—and I underscore mostly—articulated. And civility mostly—and I don’t underscore mostly—maintained. However, this debate in particular lacked any revealing moments or meaningful policy discussion between the candidates, beyond echoing previously articulated policy positions. Both Pence and Harris dodged difficult questions, and pivoted to rehearsed answers or topics of their choice.

Though Harris was particularly strong in the first 25 minutes of the night during the coronavirus-focused segment, she also clearly avoided answering difficult questions about controversial topics—including the Biden-Harris ticket’s position on a Green New Deal and the campaign’s position on “packing the court.” And while Pence was strong during the tax-policy focused segment, where he hammered home the point that a Biden Administration will raise Americans’ taxes, Pence evaded answering questions on contentious subjects, including the president’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and, most notably, on abortion rights and women’s choice.

While neither performance was particularly revealing, both candidates’ deliveries were exactly what members of their party had hoped for. Harris focused on prosecuting the case against Donald Trump, and Democrats will likely laud her performance as strong. However, Harris’ delivery was similar to Biden’s in last week’s debate—meaning that, while both Biden’s and Harris’ performances did no harm, they were inconsequential in the sense that they did nothing to project leadership. Similarly, Republicans will likely praise Pence’s performance as strong and commanding, and as a clear display of leadership. However, Pence at several instances talked over and interrupted Harris, as well as the moderator, Susan Page, prompting Page at one point to pause and remind the vice president that his campaign had agreed to a set of speaking rules for the debate. Taken together with Pence’s waffling on abortion rights and Roe v. Wade, the night likely did not bode well for the Trump-Pence ticket among suburban female voters, a bloc that the campaign is struggling to gain ground with.

The Biden-Harris Court-Packing Bind

Timothy P. Carney is commentary editor at Washington Examiner and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

We learned the most when Kamala Harris spent more than two time allotments refusing to answer the straightforward question of whether she and Joe Biden would try to pack the court. This refusal highlighted the bind the ticket is in, fearful to offend either its activist base or the swing voters. Say you’ll pack the court, and give the GOP fodder to attack you as extremists. Deny you’ll pack the court, and deflate the base, which you’ll need to win and to govern effectively.

‘Pence was a lower key version of Donald Trump last week’

Atima Omara is founder and principal strategist of Omara Strategy Group. Since 2016, she has been one of Virginia’s elected representatives to the Democratic National Committee.

Mike Pence was a lower key version of Donald Trump last week. Pence still managed to interrupt Senator Harris at every turn, not let her finish, run over his time if he could and interrupt the woman moderator. So while he was more pleasant sounding, he did not have that much more decorum than Trump. If he was trying to get more women back, particularly suburban women, he failed.

Also it is clear, like in 2016, Pence will continue to lie about even the obvious. More than 200,000 people died from Covid-19, and 7 million plus infected since March. He claimed that President Trump has put the health and wellbeing of the American people first, when all you have to do is look around and look at the mismanagement of this pandemic.

‘If this had been the Harris who had come to the 2020 Democratic primaries, she’d have been a far more effective challenger for the nomination’

Tom Nichols is professor at the U.S. Naval War College and author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.

Kamala Harris performed better than I expected and Mike Pence worse than I expected, and the difference said a lot about the state of the two campaigns. Harris found her stride as a running mate, defending Biden, laying punches on Trump and generally staying out of areas where she could find herself in a quotable bind (such as on court packing). She was well-prepared and stayed on the preferred Democratic message of the evening: the Trump administration’s incompetence and scandals. I actually think that if this had been the Harris who had come to the 2020 Democratic primaries, she’d have been a far more effective challenger for the nomination; Wednesday night she seemed ready for the job if needed. Pence, by contrast, seemed deflated compared to four years ago. He was rude to moderator Susan Page, seemed generally tired and annoyed compared to the happy warrior he was four years ago against Tim Kaine, and in general stuck to low-energy recitations of the president’s talking points. It was as close to a normal debate as we’ve seen in four years, and it summed up the race, where the energy and optimism is with the Democrats and a pall and exhaustion have settled on the Republicans. Mike Pence even looked like he didn’t feel well and had something wrong with his eye, which itself seemed a symbolic addition to the evening.

‘We’re getting a vice president who is on the fringes on abortion’

Liz Mair is a Republican campaign communications consultant.

The most revealing moment came with both candidates’ refusal to honestly state their positions on abortion, which underlined how far out of line each position actually is with most Americans. Either way, we’re getting a vice president who is on the fringes on this topic.

“Thank you, Mr. Vice President…”

Robert M. Shrum is a former political strategist and director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California.

Aside from the fly, the most revealing moment(s): the number of times Susan Page had to say—over and over—“Thank you, Mr. Vice President,” as Mike Pence plowed ahead, exceeded his time and also repeatedly interrupted Kamala Harris. He was no Donald Trump, but he was obnoxious in the way he dealt with the two women on that stage. Trump is already in deep trouble with suburban women, who will recoil from Pence’s display of condescension and sense of superiority.

‘It’s hard to see any brighter future for Pence’

John Neffinger is a speaker coach, lecturer on political communication at Georgetown University and Columbia Business School, former communications director of the Democratic National Committee and co-author of Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential.

Did anything that happened Wednesday night matter for this race? No. For the 2024 race? Definitely.

Kamala Harris did a very good job showcasing her skills, her warmth, her strength and her overall appeal. She showed she knew her stuff and could hold her own—that she was a solid choice for VP who could credibly step into the presidency if need be. She will take some getting used to yet for many Americans, but she showed she’s ready.

Mike Pence used to look like a formidable politician—square jaw, can speak with empathy, lies effortlessly—and he put in a decent performance Wednesday night. Traditionalists who don’t listen very hard will still find him reassuring. But it’s hard to see any brighter future in the party of Donald Trump for someone so stiff and so submissive to the alpha male.

‘Bring these two back for another exchange’

Beth Hansen is a Republican political strategist and the former campaign manager for John Kasich.

After the chaos of last week’s presidential debate, this was remarkably formal, civil and, for the most part, respectful. The entire evening was so low-key it’s hard to identify a single moment as revealing. Both candidates were well prepared and aggressively defended their record and the ability of their ticket to ably lead America in this difficult time. Vice President Pence did a far better job defending the Trump administration’s record than did the president last week.

What struck me was the vast, vast difference between each candidate’s view of where America finds itself today: best, worst; wisdom, foolishness; belief, incredulity; light, darkness; hope, despair. Which is Harris and which is Pence, of course, depends on which candidate you support. My advice to the Commission on Presidential Debates: Call an audible and bring these two back for another exchange!

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