INDIANAPOLIS — There was one key moment during the 2016 vice presidential debate between Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Democrat U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine. Pence was pressed on why he backed a ban on Syrian refugees.
“I have no higher priority than the safety and security of the people of my state. So you bet I suspended that program,” Pence responded to Kaine. “And I stand by that decision. And if I’m vice president of the United States or Donald Trump is president, we’re going to put the safety and security of the American people first.”
It led many observers to say that Pence won that debate, or at least held his own.
When Joe Biden picked U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris for his presidential ticket on Tuesday, setting up what could be an out-sized debate sequence, given the pandemic has robbed us of conventions and rallies, the national pundits suggested Sen. Harris would, as the New York Times’s Frank Bruni put it, “have him for breakfast.” Republican strategist Steve Schmidt observed, “I think Mike Pence is going to have a very, very difficult time in the vice presidential debate. Frankly, intellectually, from an eloquence and articulation perspective, they’re not in the same league with each other.”
Pence’s response to Kaine is relevant and demonstrative on two levels today. First, given a thorny issue, Pence’s push back was effective. Second, times have changed dramatically. Saying the “safety and security of the American people” stood above anything else leaves the vice president open to incoming given how he and Trump have handled the pandemic that has claimed 165,000 American lives (and, at this writing, at least 2,898 Hoosiers).
In 2016, Pence was selling the opportunity of Trump to many undecided voters who were sick and tired of the Clintons and Bushes, who saw America changing demographically from white and heterosexual to brown and polysexual, and who wondered why their adult offspring were still living in their basements.
Since Trump handed Pence the pandemic portfolio, Pence spent much of April and May urging states to reopen in what now appears to be premature fashion. He’s spent July and August telling parents and local school officials that it was “safe” to return to in-person classes.
Both are problematic. This fall, this election is not only a referendum on Trump, but also on who can extract American from the pandemic that is wreaking epic havoc on most aspects of life. As of last Friday, Trump’s strategy seemed to be this, in his own words: “It’s going away. It’ll go away. Things go away. No question in my mind that it will go away.”
In his 2016 debate with Sen. Kaine, Pence was in a completely different situation, this time on a national stage. He played a subservient role to Trump, who just went through one of the worst weeks a presidential nominee has ever experienced, erratically clinging to a verbal war with a beauty queen and ending by suggesting his opponent had been unfaithful to her husband. Pence had a clear mission: Steady the ticket, defend the boss, make the case against Hillary Clinton and set the stage for the second Clinton/Trump encounter in St. Louis (still to come was the “Access Hollywood” audio).
Pence always fashioned himself as a quality debater and communicator. When he first approached legendary GOP chairman Keith Bulen about running for Congress in 1988, he mentioned he was a good public speaker. Bulen responded, “What the hell does that have to do with anything?”
During his 2012 gubernatorial debate with Democrat John Gregg, the Democrat brought up Pence’s committee attendance rate in Congress. “John, you’re not sounding much like yourself these days,” Pence responded, noting that he had a “95% attendance record.” Pence quickly pivoted to attack, noting that in five of the six years when Gregg was Indiana House speaker, the state ran deficits. “Just talking about bipartisanship is not going to be good enough,” Pence said. “It’s about having a plan.”
The Pence of 2012 was a steady performer on the debate stage. He was rarely rattled. He stayed on message, delivered his talking points and defended his ticket.
On Oct. 7, Pence will face Sen. Harris, the former prosecutor and California attorney general, at the University of Utah. She led the Democratic charge against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and, earlier this year, grilled Attorney General William Barr, pressing over the “simple question” of whether President Trump or anyone in the White House “asked or suggested you open an investigation of anyone” connected with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. “Yes or no, please sir. Seems you’d remember something like that,” she said.
“I’m trying to grapple with the word ‘suggest,’” Barr responded.
Perhaps they suggested ... hinted ... inferred,” Harris said, before adding, “You don’t know.”
Appearing in Arizona as the pick was announced, Pence told supporters, “As you all know, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have been overtaken by the radical left. So given their promises of higher taxes, open borders, socialized medicine, and abortion on demand, it’s no surprise that he chose Sen. Harris. So my message to the Democratic nominee for vice president: Congratulations. I’ll see you in Salt Lake City.”
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.