Let it be said first: It is insane that the vice presidential debate is still happening in person. While viewers ought to be focusing on the words coming out of the candidates’ mouths, they will be partially consumed by those words’ attendant droplets instead. One of the main things everyone watching the debate will have to think about is whether Vice President Mike Pence is infected, and whether he’s infecting Sen. Kamala Harris with the aerosols that will easily circumnavigate the tiny plexiglass barriers erected between the candidates, which Pence nearly refused. They should have moved it to Zoom, or at least an outdoor venue.
Plexiglass drama aside, the incumbent VP is coming in as the favorite, here. Pence is the perfect counterweight to Donald Trump. Pence is driven by ideology; Trump is motivated by narcissism. Pence is playing the long game in politics; Trump is in it for instant gratification. Pence knows policy; Trump knows insults. Pence is focused and controlled; Trump is frenetic and cannot stay the course of a train of thought for more than a few seconds.
All this makes Pence a formidable adversary for the Democratic VP nominee as they face off in Salt Lake City for their first and only debate Wednesday night. There’s been a lot of speculation that Harris, known for her reputation as one of the Senate’s most brutal interrogators, will wipe the floor with Pence, but in the lead-up to the debate, both Harris and former primary opponent Pete Buttigieg—who has been playing Pence in her practice debates—have cautioned viewers not to expect an easy win for the senator. In an interview with Indianapolis Monthly, Buttigieg said Pence was an underrated debater whom “it would be a real mistake to underestimate.”
Casual political observers may be setting the bar low for Pence for two reasons. First of all, the VP debate of 2016 was held three centuries ago, so if you were somehow alive to witness it, the events of the intervening years have probably crowded the details from your brain. Secondly, throughout Trump’s term, in the shadow of an attention-hogging president, Pence has slunk around in the background, lulling Trump’s detractors into thinking of him as the madman’s mild-mannered, cowed assistant. He’s easy to caricature, what with his old-timey gender politics and the fact that he calls his wife mother. He doesn’t exude any notable whiffs of charisma or otherwise telegraph that he’d be good onstage.
But he is good, by GOP standards—which is to say that, as a former right-wing radio host, he’s a practiced liar and a smooth defender of indefensible cruelties. Viewers will judge him alongside Trump’s harrowing performance from last week, meaning Pence will look lovely by comparison to voters who like their Republicans less explicitly nasty and more beholden to codes of decorum. But Pence’s biggest asset is one he shares with the president: He is shameless. In 2016, every time Sen. Tim Kaine brought up one of the litany of terrible things Trump had said or done—proposing a “deportation force,” backing “punishment” for women who terminate their pregnancies—Pence simply denied that it had happened, no matter if it had already been recorded and broadly disseminated to the American public. When Kaine reminded Pence of Trump’s bit about how more countries should have nuclear arsenals, Pence responded, “He never said that,” shaking his head with the mild exasperation of a parent trying to calm down a hysterical child. Pence’s mien was unflappably smug as he gaslit viewers about the things they’d seen and heard with their own eyes and ears. With a dry laugh and a bemused smile, he made Kaine’s legitimate criticisms sound like bizarre conspiracy theories concocted by someone with Trump derangement syndrome. “Do you not take deductions?” Pence asked Kaine when confronted with Trump’s tax avoidance. “How does that work?”
All of this means Pence’s strategy in 2016 bears some strange similarities to Joe Biden’s in 2020. Biden spent much of last week’s presidential debate shaking his head and muttering “that’s not true” whenever Trump lied. The tactic did an OK job of giving voice to America’s moral outrage at the president. But Harris is unlikely to take the same approach against Pence partially because Harris has a higher bar to clear. According to reporting from BuzzFeed News, “Harris likely won’t take on the role of fact-checking Pence, or try to confront him frequently over falsehoods” because research has shown that “women candidates pay a high price for negativity and can be harshly punished by voters over issues of honesty.” Healthy society we’ve got here!
We’ve already seen this Harris strategy play out. Since taking the VP nomination, Harris has foregrounded the sunnier side of her political persona. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her grin for as long as she did during her Aug. 12 acceptance speech, in which she painted a lengthy, detailed picture of her life as a loving caregiver:
Whether I’m cheering in the bleachers at a swim meet, or setting up a college-room dorm, or helping my goddaughter prepare for her school debate, or building Legos with my godson, or hugging my two baby nieces, or cooking dinner—Sunday dinner—my family means everything to me. I’ve had a lot of titles over my career, and certainly, vice president would be great. But Momala will always be the one that means the most.
Like Barack Obama, who was up against a similar—though not congruent!—prejudice against Black anger, Harris has focused her message on the concept of hope. “Optimism is the fuel driving every fight I’ve been in,” Harris said in a recent Elle profile, urging America to confront its racist past “in a way that is motivated by love.” At this dark moment for the country, in a magazine that almost always features its cover models sporting a contemplative resting face or a pout, every single one of the photos in Harris’ profile, including the cover image, picture her smiling with teeth. In the 2016 debate, Pence’s leathery composure made even corny-dad Kaine seem combative. Harris, whose race and gender will predispose certain voters to set her baseline of acceptable anger even lower, will make every attempt to steer clear of that trap.
This could have its own costs. For left-leaning voters who are fired up to unseat a president they see as a mortal threat to human rights and American democracy, Harris’ pivot away from the scorching indignation she’s brought to Senate hearings and primary debates may feel like an insufficient response to the crises of 2020. During the Democratic primary, her most memorable moment was her skewering of Biden on the issue of busing. Her polling numbers rose after that debate, and Biden’s lead shrunk. When she monologued about the current president, Harris spoke with the searing clarity of a former prosecutor on the dangers of Trump’s illegal maneuvers to enrich himself and retain power.
But Harris is speaking to a different audience now: unmotivated voters, maybe some Obama-Trump voters, and others who aren’t slam-dunk Democrats. With positivity as her message, she’ll have to make an affirmative case for how a Biden administration would change the country for the better. This has been a weak spot for Harris—her presidential campaign was sunk in part by her inability to stake and stick to clear positions on important issues. Still, Biden is maintaining a wide lead in the polls, and hardly anyone’s votes are swayed by the VP debates, anyway—though the 2020 calculus may be slightly different now that the incumbent president is infected with a deadly virus, and he might have infected his opponent (Biden is still testing negative, but as we’ve seen in the past week, it can take several days for someone with COVID to test positive).
Since Pence is such a talented liar, it’s probably useless for Harris to take the Kaine route of lambasting Trump and his cohort for all their evils, anyway. Last week’s presidential debate was a clash of two mutually exclusive realities, an unproductive exercise that made any certain truth seem unattainable. And voters with the urge to waste an evening watching the VP debate have probably spent the past four years absorbing enough news coverage and feeling the impact of the Trump administration on their lives to make up their own minds about whether the current state of the country is good or bad. The best Harris can hope for, tonight, is that there are no huge headline-making moments that could move the needle.
Harris does have another option. The joy she’s been expressing in her recent appearances and interviews can be marshaled at Pence’s expense, in the same way Pence smirked and snickered at Kaine in 2016. My favorite Harris moment from the Democratic primary was the time Biden claimed to have the support of “the only African American woman that’s ever been elected to the United States Senate.” Harris interrupted him. “No, that’s not true. The other one is here,” she said, chuckling at Biden’s error. She seemed genuinely amused, shrugging as if to say, “What is it with this guy?!” and laughing for a full 10 seconds. Correcting a political opponent’s lies—when the lies aren’t exactly life-or-death—doesn’t have to be grim. In disastrous times, there is still laughter to be had at a liar’s expense.