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Mike Pence played a weak hand well

Emphasize your popular positions and your opponents’ unpopular ones.

Mike Pence at the vice presidential debate on October 7.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Donald Trump seems likely to lose this election, and if Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate ends up being important to the outcome, that would be a freakish and historically bizarre conclusion.

But viewed in isolation, Vice President Mike Pence’s performance was a master class in how to play a weak hand strongly. Liberals ought to pay attention to the way he outperformed Sen. Kamala Harris because it’s a reminder that not every Republican politician is as inept as Trump.

What Pence did is not that complicated. Time after time, exchange after exchange, regardless of the question, he relentlessly focused on popular Republican positions and unpopular Democratic ones — positioning the Trump/Pence ticket as the moderate choice compared to Biden/Harris, which he cast as a radical and risky alternative.

Pence’s job was to try to stanch the bleeding his ticket has been experiencing and subject the opposition to some scrutiny, and it largely worked. But Harris avoided any damaging gaffes, and the debate was most memorable for the fact that a fly landed on Pence’s head. Under the circumstances, that’s a good enough outcome for Biden/Harris. But while this debate is not going to determine the outcome of the presidency, it’s a good lesson in the reality that with Trump’s antics offstage, Republicans can win an argument.

Dodging the question with skill

Midway through the debate, moderator Susan Page asked Pence a good question about abortion — if Roe v. Wade were repealed, would you want to ban all abortions? It’s a good question because this has important implications for people’s lives, and it’s a tough question for Pence because his answer (yes) is very unpopular.

So Pence did what good politicians do under those circumstances: He didn’t answer the question.

Instead, he delivered a response that poked at Democrats for their handling of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, nodded at the idea that liberal opposition to Amy Coney Barrett is driven by anti-Catholic sentiment, and noted that the Harris/Biden ticket holds unpopular views on abortion, like that taxpayer funds should be available for the procedure.

Harris, taking her turn at the question, was much less sharp. She didn’t note that Pence dodged the question. She didn’t describe the actual Trump/Pence position on abortion, which is unpopular. She made a process argument about Barrett. And then she got sucked into an extended debate on court-packing where she, being a skilled lawyer and knowledgeable about the judiciary, made some good points. But she got caught in a bind trying to avoid answering the question of whether a Biden administration would support court-packing and she couldn’t turn the conversation away from it.

And this was the pattern time and again throughout the debate. Once the initial exchange on Covid-19 had passed, Pence downplayed his administration’s more extreme views and Harris failed to highlight them.

Fake moderation on taxes and the environment

The public opinion low point of the Trump administration came in 2018 when they passed a sharply regressive tax cut that delivered the overwhelming majority of its benefits to the wealthiest Americans. That record ought to be a major weak point for the Trump/Pence ticket both because the bill was unpopular and because it revealed the extent to which their priority is enriching the richest people in the country.

But when discussing taxes, Pence hewed to the talking point that the average family of four saved $2,000 a year and that Biden had promised to repeal the Trump tax cuts, thus raising taxes on everyone.

Harris protested that Biden has promised not to raise taxes on anyone earning less than $400,000. But Pence kept circling back to the repeal point. Harris didn’t manage to explain how Biden’s plan actually works, and she was unable to explain that the Trump tax bill overwhelmingly delivered cuts to corporations, non-corporate businesses, and heirs to multimillion-dollar fortunes while actually managing to raise taxes on at least some middle-class households.

Similarly, faced with questions on climate change, Pence positioned the administration as moderate — eager to protect clean air and clean water but averse to the supposed extremes of the Green New Deal. In fact, air pollution is getting worse during the Trump years because even as science increasingly indicates that air pollution is more harmful than previously believed, the Trump administration is rolling back every clean air and clean water regulation in sight.

But, like on taxes and on abortion, Harris didn’t manage to mention the Trump/Pence administration’s unpopular record, instead allowing all the focus to be placed on arguing the merits of the Biden approach.

Lying happens in politics

What Harris did instead was repeatedly get visibly annoyed at the way Pence would go over time, attack her or Biden in dishonest ways, or misrepresent his own record. In the grand tradition of debate-as-theater-criticism, pundits will inevitably question whether this played badly, like Al Gore’s infamous sighing in the 2000 debate. Pence talking over a female moderator and repeatedly interrupting his female opponent was an experience that spoke in a profound way to many of the professional women I know, and will further amplify this segment of the Democratic base’s rage against Trump and the GOP.

But if you’re not keyed into those dynamics in that specific way, the basic problem is that misleading rhetoric is a thing that happens in politics. And when it happens to you live on a debate stage, you need to do something about it — something like point out that your opponent is ducking questions and misrepresenting his positions. And you need to argue that it’s happening for a reason, like that his real positions are unpopular and his entire agenda serves as a smokescreen for powerful pernicious interests.

This is something Democrats have struggled with for years, and Harris is not unique. The way the Democratic Party coalition works is that a politician who failed to stand up for a base group’s key issues would become a figure of distrust. The GOP coalition is more forgiving. Companies that want to dump more toxic waste in the water don’t mind if their allies pretend to support the Clean Water Act. And billionaires who want the estate tax cut think it’s fine if their allies pretend to be populist champions of workers’ rights. But the most effective Democratic politicians, from Barack Obama on down, find ways to cut through the rhetoric and discuss the reality that Republicans adhere to a lot of extreme positions on economic issues.

Harris didn’t do that. She didn’t bring up the minimum wage, or the way Trump’s payroll tax shenanigans jeopardize Social Security, or any of a half-dozen other bread-and-butter Democratic Party go-tos. Harris is a donor favorite and the likely future of Democratic Party politics. But having come up in California, she has essentially no experience with running races where she needs to appeal to moderate cross-pressured voters. Pence has also spent his entire career running in a safe House seat and then statewide in a very red state. But somewhere along the way, he has picked up the knack for focusing on his good issues and downplaying his bad ones. Harris hasn’t, and it showed.

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