Even when Donald Trump had not develop into the worldwide poster little one for COVID-19, he was at all times destined to loom over the vice-presidential debate, particularly after his disastrous opening encounter with Joe Biden.
Now, the president’s sickness – and the uncertainty shrouding the state of his well being – presents Republican working mate Mike Pence with a difficult problem. It additionally complicates the duty of Democratic nominee Kamala Harris, leaving her with a fragile line to stroll. Even in absentia, even from his sickbed, Trump instructions centre stage on the vice-presidential debate.
Wednesday’s contest between Pence and Harris has the potential to shatter viewership data for vice-presidential debates, which usually draw a lot smaller audiences than their top-of-the-ticket counterparts – the exception was Biden’s debate towards novelty act Sarah Palin in 2008.
With the query of presidential succession on the forefront of many citizens’ minds, and obfuscation from the White Home the order of the day, the Pence-Harris match assumes an outsized position within the relentlessly weird election of 2020. That is the primary vice-presidential debate in American historical past that may even be watched as a presidential debate.
Viewers of the vice-presidential match will see two very completely different, very expert debaters, separated by plexiglass, making their appeals to the nation at a wierd and emotionally fragile second. Each candidates convey strengths and liabilities that can decide how they navigate a debate that’s unusually fraught for its contributors.
Trump has put Pence in a bind in two key methods. First, there’s the Trump administration’s negligent response to the pandemic, now personified by an ailing Trump beneath round the clock medical supervision, pretending all is properly. Second, there’s Trump’s aggressive, politically damaging debate efficiency towards Biden final week, nonetheless contemporary within the nation’s reminiscence. Both of these can be tough to clarify away, but Pence should sort out each.
If historical past is a information, Pence will deploy an evasive however upbeat tone. In his 2016 debate with Tim Kaine, Pence outmanoeuvred his rival by projecting an air of bland, cautious inoffensiveness. Even when espousing controversial views, Pence managed to sound generic and unthreatening. His rhetorical technique has been to make use of an entire lot of phrases to say an entire lot of nothing. Just about each assertion Pence makes vanishes into skinny air earlier than he reaches the top of the sentence.
In debates, this is usually a helpful tactic. Operating out the clock is a talent Pence mastered as a feel-good discuss radio host within the Nineteen Nineties, and it’s a trick he often employs with journalists.
However in Kamala Harris, Pence is up towards a a lot more durable adversary than Tim Kaine. This time, heat smiles and down-home Midwestern chitchat gained’t suffice. By common acclamation, Pence gained the 2016 vice-presidential debate, however hid behind that victory was an incapability to mount an efficient defence of Donald Trump. 4 years later, the administration’s report leaves Pence much more susceptible to a pointy opponent.
Allow us to not neglect that like all politicians, the vp has ambitions of his personal that transcend his alliance with Trump. Underneath regular circumstances, a high-profile debate like this may permit Pence to place himself as inheritor presumptive to the Republican throne. Now, as a substitute of constructing a constructive case for his personal political viability, Mike Pence should spend the 90-minute encounter defending the indefensible.
With Pence relegated to defence, his opponent might want to play offence in a approach that appropriately displays the sensitivities of the second. Clearly, Harris will criticise the Trump administration, however she could select to melt how she talks about Trump himself. Putting the steadiness between sympathy and indignation is the candy spot Harris should hit.
The marketing campaign gods have dealt Harris a robust hand going into this debate, together with one notably worthwhile card: Pence’s standing as head of the White Home coronavirus job pressure. This supplies Harris with a approach into the difficulty that avoids Trump’s private well being and retains the emphasis, by proxy, on Pence. It’s a easy query: With Pence in cost these previous seven months, how did issues go so mistaken?
Harris’s debate type is usually described as “prosecutorial”, as befits somebody with a protracted profession as an area district lawyer and state lawyer normal. The depth she tasks is leavened by a gradual, constant unflappability – Harris by no means appears to lose her California cool, even when bearing down on an opponent or warding off an assault.
Not like Mike Pence, Harris has by no means participated in a normal election debate, and her comparative lack of nationwide political expertise is more likely to present. Within the 2020 Democratic primaries, Harris took half in solely 5 multi-candidate debates earlier than exiting the race, although her earlier debate expertise does embrace plenty of Senate and lawyer normal matches in California.
Harris’s excessive level within the Democratic major debates got here on the expense of working mate Biden, when she criticised him for having as soon as opposed busing as a way of integrating public colleges. “There was a bit woman in California who was a part of the second class to combine her public colleges and she or he was bused to high school daily,” Harris instructed the viewers, then turned on to Biden. “And that little woman was me.”
“That little woman was me” immediately exploded right into a meme, netting $2 million in donations to Harris’s marketing campaign inside 24 hours. In a area of greater than 20 Democratic contenders, Harris vaulted into the highest tier of potential presidential nominees.
Success on the talk stage proved elusive for Harris after that. Maybe a greater discussion board for displaying her verbal dexterity and dramatic aptitude has been the ground of the US Senate, the place Harris has used her membership on the highly effective Judiciary Committee to publicly discombobulate two Trump attorneys normal (Jeff Classes and William Barr) and a Supreme Courtroom nominee (Brett Kavanaugh). Harris appears to carry explicit peril for conservative white Republican males – a class that naturally contains Pence.
Heading into the vice-presidential debate, political circumstances could favour Harris, however as we discovered in 2016, Pence can’t be discounted, particularly along with his again towards the wall. At an unsettling juncture in American historical past, this usually low-stakes ritual immediately looks like an audition for future.