The big topic of the night was, of course, the novel coronavirus, and Pence had the advantage of his experience leading the administration’s coronavirus task force. He did more in a few minutes Wednesday to rebut criticisms of how the virus has been handled than all other administration officials combined have managed to do in the past eight months.
After Harris mentioned Biden’s plan to combat the virus, Pence countered that it practically plagiarizes the Trump response. He also noted that the Obama-Biden response to the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009 was disastrous, with 60 million infected; that Biden had criticized Trump for closing travel from China soon after the virus began to spread; and that the Trump administration trusts the American people to make good health decisions when presented with the facts. Whatever one’s opinions of those responses, Harris did little to rebut any of them, which scored points for Pence.
And so it went, topic after topic — the economy, foreign policy, health care, the environment, the Supreme Court, confidence in the election, even racial justice — Harris was prepared, passionate, sometimes eloquent and often effective. Pence, though, was masterful. He not only ably defended Trump in ways that few, including Trump himself, have managed to do, but also pointed time and again to the hypocrisy and flip-flops of Biden and Harris on numerous issues. He was particularly effective asking Harris to stop casting doubt on the trustworthiness of a coronavirus vaccine. Throughout the night, Pence had Harris on her heels.
Usually, the job of the No. 2 on the ticket is to do no harm. But on Wednesday, like four years ago, with Trump trailing badly in the polls and widely seen has having no chance at victory, there was more pressure than usual on Pence to overperform. In 2016, Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.) entered the debate in the role of pit bull, trying to bury Trump. In the end, Kaine came off as almost rudely unrelenting, while Pence comported himself as a poised and effective debater.
Marc Duvoisin of the Los Angeles Times tweeted during that debate, “Kaine is trying to win the argument, Pence is trying to win the audience.” Reviewing the matchup for Vox, Matthew Yglesias wrote that Pence taught a “master class” on how to defend Trump by sometimes not defending him at all. “Pence was tight, disciplined, and focused on his talking points,” wrote Yglesias. “He never took the bait, never let himself get dragged into unfavorable terrain, and simply ignored subjects he didn’t want to discuss.” That same analysis could be offered for Pence’s Wednesday night showing.
Harris, a former prosecutor known as a tough interrogator, tried at times to hit Pence hard. Against a Black female opponent, Pence had to be on guard against slips that could leave him open to allegations of racism or sexism, an almost impossible task in a political environment where such accusations are par for the course against Republicans in general and the Trump administration in particular.
On Wednesday, Harris a couple of times tried implying that Pence was being rude — perhaps chauvinistic? — when he interjected a comment during her answer. In what sounded like a planned response, at one point Harris glared at Pence and said, “I’m speaking. I’m speaking.” Pence was not particularly deterred.
Holding a job historically defined by keeping a low profile, meeting low expectations and being the butt of lowbrow humor by late-night comedians, Pence can sometimes seem even more drab than most of his predecessors. He’s an evangelical Christian, a blue suit-red tie Republican and a family man of such devotion that his biggest controversy so far has revolved around his declaration that he won’t dine alone with a woman not his wife.
With a happy penchant for staying several steps behind his boss and a near comical willingness to heap praise upon the president, Pence has been a perfect fit at the bottom of a ticket led by the loud and outrageous Trump. But when called to step out from the shadow, Pence often shines.
During Wednesday’s debate, someone who does not live and breathe politics texted me and said, “Pence is a very solid debater.” Yes, he is.