The prosecutor vs. the ‘king of sound bites.’ Why the Harris-Pence debate is not any unusual VP faceoff – Information – The State Journal-Register
California state Sen. Toni Atkins was going to ask Kamala Harris about her upcoming debate with Vice President Mike Pence when Harris animatedly interrupted.
“Let me just say something. He’s a good debater,” Harris said during a virtual fundraiser last month. “So, I’m so concerned, like I can only disappoint.”
Harris’ assessment of Pence is echoed by Democrats and Republicans alike who know the vice president and understand the skills Pence brings as a former radio talk show host and the Trump administration’s most disciplined messenger.
Harris can rely on her prosecutorial skills – which have made more than one Republican squirm under her grilling at congressional hearings – and her wattage as a rising star in the Democratic Party and first woman of color on a major party’s presidential ticket.
Her gender brings an extra element of interest because of the Trump campaign’s struggles with female voters and because of the criticism Pence has received from the left for his practice of avoiding being alone with a woman other than his wife.
Even before President Donald Trump’s hospitalization for COVID-19 increased the stakes in the vice presidential debate, it was already expected to draw more attention than Pence’s 2016 contest against Sen. Tim Kaine – a match that Republican strategist Michael Steel dubbed “Mayonnaise versus Miracle Whip.”
“I think that the debates that are most interesting are the ones where you have a pretty striking contrast between the candidates,” said Alan Schroeder, a presidential debate historian and author of the book “Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail.
In addition, older candidates can put more of a spotlight on younger running mates. Trump’s illness, and the pandemic in general, only increases the possibility that Trump, 74, or Joe Biden, 77, might not be able to finish a term. (Pence is 61 and Harris is 55.)
“There’s a greater than normal possibility that one of the candidates in the VP debate will be president of the United States,” said Steel, who helped Paul Ryan prepare for the 2012 vice presidential debate.
Trump’s diagnosis adds to the questions that were already raised about whether there will be additional presidential debates. After the first debate devolved into a slugfest, the Commission on Presidential Debates said it’s considering changes to ensure “a more orderly discussion of the issues.” Trump has not said whether he will participate if the rules are changed. If he doesn’t, Wednesday could be the final faceoff between the campaigns.
Voters may also view the vice presidential contest as a better chance to understand the issues.
“Mike Pence is as smooth as Trump is crude,” Democratic strategist David Axelrod said on his podcast. “He’ll probably give the performance that Trump’s handlers wished that he had given something like.”
A Republican close to Pence and the debate prep process said he expects the 90-minutes to be a “temperature-lowering debate” in which both candidates will want to talk about policy and what the next four years would look like.
Donald Trump congratulates vice presidential candidate Mike Pence at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
It’s not unusual that a vice presidential candidate has the task of cleaning up after a presidential debate.
After President Barack Obama’s weak first debate against Mitt Romney in 2012, one of Biden’s missions was to put the campaign on a course correction, Schroeder said.
But Pence, he added, “has got a very tough job to do here.”
In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken after the presidential debate, 49% of registered voters thought Biden did better than Trump while only 24% thought Trump was the winner. The poll also showed Biden’s lead over Trump had grown to 14 points.
“It puts a little bit of pressure on Pence to try and sort of breath some life back into a campaign that was behind beforehand,” said vice presidential expert scholar Joel Goldstein, an emeritus professor of St. Louis University.
High expectations for Harris
Harris faces her own pressures.
While Pence has been through a vice presidential debate, this is a first for Harris. She also hasn’t debated a Republican since her 2010 race for California attorney general. The tough questioning she’s known for at Senate hearings and jabs she delivered during the 2019 Democratic presidential primary debates came under different dynamics than what she will face Wednesday before a viewership of tens of millions.
“I can’t stress how strongly I would say that doing a one-on-one debate in a general election is a much higher challenge than participating in primary debates with multiple candidates,” said Robert Barnett, the Washington lawyer who has prepared many Democrats for presidential and vice presidential debates, including portraying Pence in Kaine’s 2016 debate prep. “The stakes are higher. The audience is bigger. The breadth of the issues is unlimited. And the cost of failure is enormous.”
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in Wilmington, Delaware, on Aug. 12, 2020.
Harris also faces high expectations. After Biden announced her as his running mate, a common reaction – especially on social media – was predictions of a slaughter.
“I will take EXTREME pleasure watching Kamala Harris eat Mike Pence alive in a debate,” tweeted Adam Rippon, the figure skater who objected to Pence’s leading the 2018 Olympic delegation because of Pence’s record on LGBTQ issues.
Harris has repeatedly pushed back on such comments, such as when Doug Hickey, a Silicon Valley executive, told Harris during another fundraiser: “I sincerely feel sorry for Mike on this one.”
“Mike Pence debates really well, so lower the expectations,” Harris retorted.
Don’t underestimate Pence
John Gregg, the Indiana Democrat who went to law school with Pence and squared off against him in the state’s 2012 gubernatorial race, said people underrate the vice president’s skills.
“You know, he’s easy to poke fun at. A lot of people do because he’s conservative – or different things he’s said,” Gregg said. “But they underestimate Mike. He’s a very good debater.”
The years Pence spent as a radio talk show host helped make him the “king of sound bites” which he combines with a message focus that Gregg said makes him “the most disciplined candidate I’ve ever run into.” That allowed Pence to defy expectations in 2016.
“I think you’d have to admit, Mike Pence got the best in that debate,” Gregg said of the Pence-Kaine debate.
Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine and Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence debate during the Vice Presidential Debate at Longwood University on October 4, 2016 in Farmville, Virginia.
While that contest was not as fractious as the most recent presidential debate, Pence and Kaine frequently interrupted each other. The moderator, who lost control at times, admonished the candidates that the viewers couldn’t understand either one when they talked over each other.
But Pence won points for appearing more even-tempered and in control – as well as deftly deflecting Kaine’s attacks on Trump as he employed the Reaganesque mannerisms of a little smile followed by a tilt and shake of his head in response to Kaine’s criticisms.
“The biggest takeaway I had from that debate four years ago was the skill with which Pence could just kind of shake off almost anything that Donald Trump had done or said,” Steel, the Republican strategist, said.
Prosecuting the case
This time, Kaine said, Harris can use her prosecutorial background to make an indictment against the Trump administration for the deaths from COVID-19, the millions of lost jobs, social unrest in the streets and sky-high deficits.
“A prosecutor will have evidence to argue in this debate and that’s kind of different than 2016 when it was more about promises about what we’ll do rather than in fact what has the record been of the administration,” Kaine wrote in an emailed response to USA TODAY.
Harris has said her biggest challenge will be handling “what is very likely to be a series of untruths.”
“I don’t necessarily want to be the fact checker,” Harris told Hillary Clinton during a recent episode of Clinton’s podcast. “At the same time, you know, depending on how far he goes with whatever he does, he’s going to be accountable for what he said.”
Clinton said Harris should also be prepared for “the slights, the efforts to diminish you personally, you as a woman who’s about to be our next vice president.”
Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman in a vice presidential debate, rebuked George H. W. Bush in 1984 for what she called his “patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.”
That moment was unrehearsed, said Barnett, who played Bush in Ferraro’s debate prep. It was also a “very important moment in the history of women in politics,” even though Bush won the election, he added.
“She stood for every woman who’d ever been patronized,” Barnett said.
Vice President George Bush shakes hands with Geraldine Ferraro Oct.11,1984 at the end of their debate in Philadelphia.
While female candidates can still face a higher bar, Barnett said, male-female faceoffs are also “fraught with peril for the male candidate.”
Pence has the added dynamic of the notoriety he’s gotten for saying that the steps he’s taken to “build a zone” around his marriage include not dining alone with a woman who is not his wife.
“How can you not watch that debate and kind of think about that?” said Schroeder.
In fact, when the Washington Post reported that former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was essentially role playing Harris during debate prep, the news sparked social media snickers about whether the so-called “Pence rule” was at play in that decision.
Walker portrayed Kaine in Pence’s 2016 debate prep and the two “have a good history,” said the Republican close to Pence and the debate process who requested anonymity to speak candidly. Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, and other women, have also been involved.
In 2016, Pence’s older daughter, Charlotte, worked with him on how to address “women’s issues” in anticipation of being asked about his anti-abortion views. She’s helping out again, according to the Republican close to Pence.
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, has reportedly been portraying Pence in Harris’ debate prep.
Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., left, and Republican candidate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin shake hands following a vice presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008.
Getting the right tone
Biden was deliberately restrained when he debated GOP presidential nominee Sarah Palin in 2008, according to Goldstein, the vice presidential scholar. That was a different situation than now because “there the concern was that Palin was a lightweight and he didn’t want to appear to be a bully.”
“But I think that given the challenges they’ve had with women voters and the way that Trump has treated women politicians on occasions,” Goldstein said, “I think Pence has to be careful not to appear condescending or patronizing or engaged in any behavior that would appropriately be viewed as sexist.”
Ralph Reed, a longtime friend of Pence and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said Pence will be walking a tightrope on tone.
Still, he added: “It’s important to respect one’s opponent enough to challenge them.” And showing respect doesn’t mean taking a dive. Especially, Reed said, because Harris is “not at all afraid to throw a punch.”
“I think the vice president will be a perfect gentleman – and he’ll be tough as nails,” Reed said.
Gregg, Pence’s 2012 gubernatorial opponent, has no doubt Pence will be “kind, courteous and gracious” to Harris.
“I think the biggest challenge for Senator Harris will be to try to force him to give substantive answers,” Gregg said. “I’d just tell her to hold his feet to the fire.”