Vice presidential debates didn’t matter — until the president contracted a deadly virus and might be too sick to attend the next two of his own.
After last week’s screamfest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden drowned out nearly all talk of policy, it’s now on Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris to illuminate Wednesday night how the two tickets differ on substance. Pence has considerable ground to make up after Trump’s widely panned bulldozer act last week, and Harris has the delicate task of taking on the president as he recovers from the coronavirus.
Harris’ tone toward the laid-up president is expected to mirror Biden’s of late, according to aides and allies. The Democratic presidential contender and Harris have wished the president a speedy recovery. Their campaign pulled negative TV ads and implored staff to refrain from piling on to reporters and on social media, though as Trump emerged from the hospital late Monday, Biden suggested he would not let him off the hook for not wearing a mask and flaunting social distancing protocols.
The grim circumstances don’t change Harris’ overarching objective: to methodically yolk Pence to the Trump administration’s months of failures to contain the virus, zeroing in on his role as chair of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
The legal threat to the Affordable Care Act — clarified by the battle over the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat — will be another focal point for Harris. And after Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito lamented Monday the “ruinous consequences for religious liberty” of the court’s decision that granted marriage rights — and signaled that the ruling should be reconsidered — the VP contenders’ sharply divergent records on same-sex marriage are likely to surface.
Harris’ aides view Pence as a far more polished and disciplined orator than the president. Unlike with Trump, they say, when Pence says something untrue it is packaged in language that makes it harder to spot and counter in real time. But Harris will attempt to pin him down on Trump’s stewardship of the sputtering economy and explosive remarks on race and groups tied to white supremacy.
“The key thing with Pence is that you have to separate out style from substance,” said Bob Barnett, the Democratic lawyer who was Tim Kaine’s stand-in for Pence in 2016 and has focused on debate preparations for 10 presidential campaigns. “He will come across as very measured, very thoughtful and very smooth — very unlike President Trump. But out of his mouth will come these wild Trumpisms.”
Rarely have vice presidential debates been memorable, let alone consequential. Kaine, who shared a stage with Pence four years ago, conducted a review of VP debates at the time and concluded that “no one ever made any difference,” though the 1976 meeting between Sens. Bob Dole and Walter Mondale was viewed as a boon to Jimmy Carter’s campaign.
The thunderclap of events leading into the week — along with Trump’s condition and Biden’s age — has raised the stakes for both campaigns with less than a month before Election Day and the prospects for the remaining presidential debates up in the air.
Harris and Pence’s camps each recognize that a future president could be on stage. And they anticipate a more orderly event after the president’s constant outbursts interrupted the flow in Cleveland and made it exceedingly difficult to follow.
Trump is leaning on Pence more than before to perform after he was sidelined with the virus. Harris had always planned to focus on making a proactive case for Biden, but her aides contend last week’s debate reinforced for many voters that the upcoming clash could be their last chance to hear something approaching a substantive exchange of ideas.
Even if Trump recovers and debates again, there’s no guarantee Biden or a future moderator will have more success than Chris Wallace.
New safety precautions will serve as a visual reminder of the virus that’s consumed the country. The Commission on Presidential Debates approved plans for plexiglass barriers between Pence, Harris and moderator Susan Page. The candidates were moved from 7 feet to 13 feet apart. Biden’s camp supported the moves, which came under scrutiny from Trump officials, despite Pence’s leadership on the coronavirus task force that advocates for safety measures.
Harris, a prodigious preparer, has spent weeks trying to drill down to the substance of Pence’s record and past remarks. In Washington, before arriving last week in Salt Lake City, she reviewed briefing materials, memorizing Biden’s stances, the Trump-Pence agenda and studying for how to square her record with the anticipated hits from Pence.
Prep sessions have involved a rotating cast of subject matter experts and top Biden hands, including Symone Sanders, who has been traveling with Harris of late. Former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who sparred with Harris over his own record on race shortly before she dropped out of the primary last year, has been helping prep her on Pence, a fellow Indianan.
“We’re very cognizant that Pence can’t run from Trump’s record,” a Biden campaign adviser said. “This debate isn’t even about him. It’s about their failed record.”
Confronting Harris without making it too personal will be a central challenge for Pence. Outside Democratic groups are prepared to call out instances of perceived sexism or racism, and Harris allies, including top donors and politicians, have issued warnings about how she might be portrayed in the ensuing coverage. On her podcast, Hillary Clinton told Harris she’d face slights to diminish her because she’s a woman.
“I think that what Mike Pence will try to do is somehow subtly undercut Kamala,” Clinton said during a recent fundraiser with Harris. Clinton predicted Harris wouldn’t stand for such treatment, but advised her to “modulate her responses because we know there still is a double standard alive and well when it comes to women in politics.”
Tactically, Pence’s camp studied Harris’s debates and came away convinced that she’s stronger on the attack than she is as a counterpuncher, according to Trump allies. Last year, Harris struggled in the debate when confronted by the gadfly candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard over her criminal justice record.
Meantime, Harris allies stressed the rules and structure of the debate differ from a Senate hearing where she can control the flow of questions like a prosecutor might in a courtroom.
Harris aides also anticipate Pence will try to drive a wedge between the liberal positions she espoused as a candidate for president and the centrist approaches that she’s adopted as Biden’s running mate. Harris, for example, personally opposes fracking and supported the “Green New Deal.” She also expressed an openness in the past when asked whether the Supreme Court should be expanded.
Her advisers largely view the disparities as a distraction from Trump’s own record, which has become harder to defend since the virus killed more than 200,000 people and cratered the national economy. But each instance will still require an answer from Harris.
“She’s very clear about her role as vice presidential nominee in being a part of implementing Joe Biden’s vision. So, I think, that’s her answer,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who served as Kaine’s communications director during the 2016 presidential race.
“As Biden has said, you give your advice to the president, your insight and your counsel, and at the end of the day, the president makes the decision. And you are there to help implement that vision.”