Mike Pence has the toughest job in politics tonight: defending Donald Trump’s pandemic response.
He’ll have a lot of material to work with. The coronavirus pandemic is raging, with the president — himself infected — leaving the hospital only Monday. The White House has become a hot spot of infection. And if that wasn’t enough, Trump on Tuesday cut off negotiations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) over a pandemic relief package, deflating financial markets on his first day back.
What Trump needs from Pence tonight is what he’s always needed — a calm and rational explanation to Republicans and right-leaning independents that a Trump-Pence ticket, however chaotic, also comes with the conservative policies and Supreme Court nominees they care about.
Pence has done this work before. Right before Pence debated Tim Kaine in 2016, Trump threatened to sue the New York Times for reporting that he avoided paying taxes (a topic that is likely to come up again tonight, thanks to a more recent installment of reporting). And Trump by then already had a catalogue of greatest hits for Pence to deflect, on everything from birtherism to Trump’s rhetoric on immigrants.
It’s the former radio host (turned governor) vs. the former prosecutor (turned senator) in Salt Lake City Wednesday for the first and only vice presidential debate. Yes, it’s the undercard. No, it probably won’t alter the course of the campaign. But Trump is 74 and Joe Biden is 77. What Pence and Kamala Harris say is likely to be seen through that lens. And unlike the first presidential debate last week, you might be able to hear them speak.
Here are five things we’re watching for in the vice presidential debate.
Mr. Coronavirus Task Force
More than 200,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, and much of the country has been shut down for months. Pence’s role leading Trump’s coronavirus task force makes him a prime target for criticism of how the government handled the pandemic response.
Harris will bludgeon Pence for the White House’s halting and at-times chaotic efforts, and the weight of public opinion is on her side.
Pence has few good options here. He can point to Trump’s own illness as evidence the virus is beatable — though details of Trump’s condition remain murky, and Trump had access to a level of care that most Americans could only dream of. He can blame China. He can say it could have been worse. He can argue for opening businesses and schools for fear of inflicting long-term economic damage.
But even Pence’s most effective play — to turn the conversation elsewhere — will be hard to execute, with the virus top of mind. The situation is so grave in Salt Lake City that debate coverage in the local newspaper this morning shared above-the-fold real estate with a story about the mayor urging reinstatement of some public health restrictions.
Can Pence see 2024?
History suggests tonight’s vice presidential debate almost certainly won’t affect the outcome of this election. But it might offer a preview of the next one.
Regardless of whether Biden or Trump wins, Harris will likely be an immediate frontrunner in the next open Democratic presidential primary, whether in 2024 or 2028.
And Pence? The polite thing to say is that he’s steady, if at times boring. But who knows what Republicans will be in the mood for personality-wise after four or eight years of Trump. His approval ratings among Republicans are solid, and he has support among Christian conservatives.
Pence’s future prospects are inextricably tied to Trump, and his politics are full-on MAGA. But he has also been careful to draw some distinctions from the president — something he will likely have to do again tonight.
Look for a reprisal of his remarks at the Republican National Convention this summer, when he said that Trump “does things his own way, on his own terms.” When Pence said that “some people think we’re a little bit different,” it wasn’t a dig at the president. But it was also the kind of remark that Pence will be able to point back to four years from now as evidence of at least some separation.
Harris will be tightly scripted
Kamala Harris got in trouble in the primary when she went off script — or didn’t have one.
Back in 2018, she said “it depends,” when asked at a town hall meeting if she would reject donations from corporations or corporate lobbyists, then changed course within weeks and electing not to take corporate PAC money. During the primary, she struggled to express how, exactly, she planned to address health care — with the Biden campaign dismissing the proposal she came up with as a “have-it-every-which-way” plan.
But Harris’ plans are now Biden’s. And when Harris is prepared — as her performance in congressional hearings made evident — she can be devastating.
Last week, when Trump was hospitalized, it appeared that Harris might have to moderate her biting criticism of the president, a delicate assignment. But now that Trump is back at the White House — and tweeting furiously — no one will expect her to go soft.
Tonight is Act 1 for Harris. She’ll have a second, more consequential role during her expected questioning of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett at Senate hearings later this month.
Supreme Court reset
Trump’s hospitalization — and the infections of Republicans around him — turned the focus on Barrett’s nomination into an epidemiological study of the Rose Garden event that kicked it off.
If Pence can do anything for Trump tonight, it will be to reset the Supreme Court hearings as a focus of the campaign. Republicans believe highlighting Barrett could energize base voters and persuade conservative-leaning independents to get over their reservations about Trump’s temperament or other aspects of his job performance.
On the line is a case to undercut the Affordable Care Act that the Supreme Court will hear one week after Election Day, as well as the composition of a court that may be called on to settle election-related disputes.
Harris will have an opportunity to hit Pence on the administration’s efforts to undo health care protections and on Democrats’ concerns about what Barrett’s confirmation could mean for Roe v. Wade. Pence has said he wants the landmark ruling overturned.
Pence will get an opening to press Harris on the issue of expanding the Supreme Court — something she has previously expressed an openness to, but which Biden has refused to address.
Life — and death — is a stage
Harris won the first round of the debate, and it hasn’t even started. Plexiglass will separate the two candidates, a clear reminder of the Trump administration’s inability to control the coronavirus pandemic, even inside the White House.
Pence had objected to such a barrier, and it was a gross miscalculation. Sure, the better outcome for him would have been to not erect physical reminder of the virus’ spread. But in resisting — and then caving — he will pay twice. Harris not only gets the plexiglass but can grill Pence on why he objected to such a measure in the first place.
It’s not a conversation the Trump-Pence ticket wants to have. And if Pence — who has so far tested negative for Covid-19 — couldn’t stop organizers from putting stricter public health measures in place, it’s hard to see how Trump, who just left the hospital with the virus, will be able to do any better if either of the two remaining presidential debates go forward.
Look for pans to the crowd. Debate organizers are promising stricter enforcement of mask-wearing enforcement, after Trump’s family members were panned for refusing to masks during his debate with Biden.
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