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How will Mike Pence fare vs Kamala Harris? Five moments from 2016 offer clues


By Adam Nagourney

This is not Mike Pence’s first vice-presidential campaign debate. In 2016, he faced Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Hillary Clinton’s running mate. It was a vigorous and contentious 90 minutes, and it gives a hint of what Pence might be like Wednesday night when he debates Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate.

And a review of that 2016 matchup leaves no doubt that Pence knows the two things a vice-presidential candidate is supposed to do in a debate. The first is to defend the person at the top of your ticket, in this case President Donald Trump. The second is to attack the person at the top of the opposing ticket: Clinton in 2016, and Joe Biden in 2020.

Kaine attacked Trump at every opportunity, and Pence was ready. He diligently defended his running mate. But typically he defended Trump and quickly pivoted to talk about what a Trump administration would do, or to attack President Barack Obama or Clinton. He presumably did not want the debate to turn into a referendum on Trump and almost certainly is coming into this year’s debate with a similar strategy. That’s likely to be more difficult this time: Trump has been president for four years, the country has been slammed by a pandemic and Trump himself is sick.

Pence was energetic in attacking Clinton, amplifying and expanding on the attacks that Trump was making on the campaign trail.

“There’s a reason why people question the trustworthiness of Hillary Clinton and that’s because they’re paying attention,” he said, smoothly delivering one of the more memorable (if no doubt scripted) lines of the night.

Biden has proved to be a more elusive target than Clinton, but the kind of attack on her record Wednesday night is likely to be reprised. (This exchange is also instructive in how Pence was able to keep control of the microphone despite Kaine’s effort to derail him.)

Pence was just as vigorous in attacking Kaine’s record as governor of Virginia, although much of this attack seems intended to build up his own credentials as governor of Indiana. Voters don’t make their decisions in presidential races based on the running mates, so there was little reason for Pence to spend too much time on Kaine.

The dynamic is different this year. Trump, frustrated in his efforts to assail Biden, has tried to portray Harris as a far-left Democrat who would be the real power in the White House should Biden win. Given the ages of the two men at the top of the ticket — Trump is 74, Biden is 77 — and Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, a clear subtext of this matchup is that either Harris or Pence could be president one day.

Pence was forced to defend Trump on an issue that is likely to come up again Wednesday: the president’s success at minimizing his federal tax bill. It was the subject of stories in The New York Times in 2016 and in 2020, both published just before the vice-presidential debates.

Pence was prepared for the question — arguing, as Trump has, that his running mate was a smart businessman who minimized his tax bill.

“Donald Trump is a business man, not a career politician,” he said.

Bonus in this exchange: Pence avoids answering the question of why Trump has not, as pledged, released his tax returns. (He still has not.)

During his debate with Kaine, Pence addressed an issue that was central in 2016 and that has returned in 2020: law and order. Pence uses a question about his views about the criticism of law enforcement to talk about his family background, before belittling critics of the police.

“My uncle was a cop,” he said, going on to pay tribute to the police. From there, Pence denounced the “bad-mouthing” of law enforcement by critics who accuse the police of bias or “institutional racism.”

If Trump has his way, the issue of law and order will be even more central to this election. Trump has argued that putting Democrats in control would lead to a spike in disorder and crime, pointing to some of the demonstrations that have swept through U.S. cities this summer. Pence can be expected to say much the same thing Wednesday night. So far, there is little evidence that law and order is capturing voters’ attention the way the pandemic has, or that Trump is being lifted politically by that issue.

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