If Pence cannot bully or successfully lie his way through the debate, what can he do? He might try sounding rational, even if that means contradicting his boss. Of course Russia is a threat. Of course people should wear masks. It would be in Pence’s interest to establish himself as reasonable, given that he surely sees the handwriting on the wall for Trump and presumably wants a career post-Trump.
Harris has essentially five tasks. Keep in mind that we should expect a much smaller audience for next week’s event and that the vice-presidential faceoff has never affected the outcome of the presidential contest. This is a matter of how much help Harris can provide to her running mate, who currently enjoys a commanding lead.
First, Pence is nominally head of the White House’s covid-19 task force meetings. He will have more difficulty denying or distorting what, for example, Anthony S. Fauci has said. And he won’t be able to deny simple facts, such as that the number of cases is going up in many red states; that more tests does not explain our high death count (duh); and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was forced to change its warnings about airborne transmission and school safety measures. Harris can ridicule Trump for placing Americans at risk with mass rallies (some of which are indoors) and for Trump’s mocking of mask-wearing. The list of Trump failures and lies on covid-19 is long. Even if Pence demonstrates that he has a grasp on the pandemic, Harris can certainly make the case that his boss sure does not.
Second, Harris should hammer home Trump’s refusal to denounce white nationalists, his extolling of the Confederate flag, his defense for accused murderer Kyle Rittenhouse and his refusal to address police reform. It will be interesting to see if Pence is willing to “own” Trump’s racism. If he defends Trump, Harris has made her point; if Pence inches away from Trump, he could provoke a firestorm in the MAGA cult.
Third, Pence likely doesn’t want to talk about — let alone embrace — Trump’s nutty conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama spying on him. Nor should he want to discuss Trump’s sycophancy toward Putin, his anti-NATO rhetoric, his trade illiteracy (Who pays tariffs, Mr. Vice President?), his flattery of Kim Jong Un, his excuse-mongering for dictators or his invitation to the Taliban to come to Camp David. On these points, Harris, who is on the Senate Intelligence Committee, can make some headway with Republican crossover voters who are anxious about the United States’ declining prestige and influence in the world. Making the case for a president who can distinguish between enemies and friends would be a plus for Democrats.
Fourth, Trump is in court trying to invalidate the Affordable Care Act. If he succeeds, there is no protection for people with preexisting conditions or ban on lifetime caps. Harris should raise that at every turn and point out that Trump’s own health and human services secretary says Trump’s “executive order” on health care — a pathetic effort to deflect from this shortcoming — is of no legal consequence.
Finally, Harris can reel off the list of broken promises Trump made to the “forgotten men and women” of America. Trump has built a fraction of his wall (and Mexico didn’t pay for it). He tried to cut Medicaid. He did not produce an infrastructure bill. He never came up with a health-care bill. He did not solve the problem of China stealing our intellectual property. He did not make us more respected in the world. He did not best Obama’s job numbers, nor even create any jobs on net.
The debate has only upside for Harris. Nothing she says is likely to inflict any damage on her running mate. For Pence, however, he has a choice between defending the indefensible or planning for a career after Trump. His spinelessness to date suggests he will do the former, albeit ineffectually.