Vice President Mike Pence has spent his entire career preparing for Wednesday night’s debate with 2020 Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, and his performance could determine the political fates of both himself and President Donald Trump.
Pence, whom Trump originally tapped in 2016 to serve as a counterbalance to his own bombastic style, is the picture of a Reagan Republican. He’s polished, delivers carefully crafted words specifically designed to deflect difficult questions, and has been a constant figure in the conservative movement — at multiple levels of government and on radio airwaves — since the 1980s.
In many ways, he’s the anti-Trump and is uniquely equipped to square off against Harris, whom the Trump campaign has painted as actively driving former Vice President Joe Biden toward the progressive end of the Democratic caucus and the party’s heir come apparent. (EXCLUSIVE: Mike Pence Won’t Rule Out Running For President In 2024)
No matter how hard Trump tries, it’s apparent that efforts to paint the “Senator from MBNA” as a born again socialist are missing the mark. But Pence won’t face any of those problems Wednesday evening taking on Harris, the most liberal member of the Senate. She and Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders co-sponsored the Medicare for all bill, and though her prosecutorial track record on issues like marijuana and criminal justice reform caused problems for her in a crowded Democratic primary field, she’s more than made it clear she’s willing to embrace the progressive wing of the caucus to solidify the party’s base.
On top of spending the past week specifically preparing for his face off with Harris, Pence has actively launched anti-socialism salvos for the better part of three decades, and he’ll need that ammo Wednesday night when the discussion inevitably turns toward the administration’s own pandemic response and Trump’s own coronavirus diagnosis. Lest we forget, Pence is still the head of the White House coronavirus task force. Access to data and the specific details of the administration’s latest strategies — coupled of course with Pence’s signature delivery — should make it significantly easier to counter Harris’ accusations that the administration failed in its handling of COVID-19 and instead focus the conversation on Harris’ own policies. (RELATED: Could The Vice Presidential Debate Be A Warm-Up For Harris In 2024?)
Following Trump’s positive coronavirus test, the Biden campaign announced they were pausing all negative ads about the president, but should Harris opt to still “go there” on Trump, the 2016 VP debate holds clues to how Pence would respond. He responded to attacks from then-Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine with laughter and quasi-agreement. In one particular exchange, Pence turned Kaine criticism of Trump’s not-published tax returns into ardent praise for tax cuts.
Though the circumstances were totally different, it was oddly reminiscent of Biden’s own dismantling of Paul Ryan at the 2012 VP debate, a performance that some claimed saved the Democrats that November after then-Republican nominee Mitt Romney took then-President Barack Obama to task during the cycle’s first presidential debate.
Pence won’t win Trump any new supporters, but that doesn’t matter. His addition to the ticket was never about broadening the tent, but instead giving the GOP establishment — perhaps turned off by Trump’s rhetoric, tweets, and generally non-presidential behavior — an excuse to vote Red. His performance Wednesday will be a direct pitch to Never Trump Republicans not to throw the baby out with the bath water and should serve as a less-than-subtle reminder that there will be a new name atop the Republican ticket in 2024.