Vice President Mike Pence has a huge challenge Wednesday night. As always in debates, he’s auditioning for a job, but in this election cycle, he doesn’t know which one: Is it the top one, or just Number Two? With Donald Trump still suffering from Covid-19—no matter what his doctors say—Pence has never faced a job interview this complicated. But unless Trump gets too ill—God forbid—to watch the debate, Pence has an audience of one. So he better remember he’s still Number Two.
Kamala Harris is also auditioning for both, of course. Joe Biden’s vice presidential selection was especially fraught given that the 77-year-old very well might not run again in 2024. If he doesn’t, she will be the front-runner. But Harris’s path to debate victory is clearer than Pence’s: She’s got to be Biden’s biggest cheerleader, while taking principled shots at the Trump-Pence record of shame.
She will be fine.
Sure, there were concerns inside Camp Biden, almost until he chose her as a running mate, that she’d brandished her ambition alarmingly in a debate stunner last year, when she (temporarily) brought him low by criticizing his early-career opposition to busing. She came out as a child of busing, with the flourish, “That little girl was me.” Now, that grown woman is in Biden’s corner—and he couldn’t ask for a better ally.
Let’s face it: Both Pence and Harris are auditioning for jobs that require them to pretty unflinchingly back their boss (at least in public). What’s the best way to preview that?
In 2016, Pence got by assiduously backing Trump’s positions in debating VP nominee Tim Kaine—except when he couldn’t. Even back then, the two men sparred over a growing epidemic of police violence, with Pence accusing Clinton of using “a broad brush to accuse cops of institutional racism.” Kaine shot back, “I can’t believe you’re defending the position that there’s no bias.” Let’s see that again tonight.
Kaine also tried to hit Pence, more than once, with Trump’s claim that undocumented Mexican immigrants tend to be rapists and criminals. At one point, Pence was flummoxed. “You whipped out that Mexican thing again!” he declared.
Yet Pence was slippery, as Kaine tried to hammer home at the end (the Democrat was widely judged the loser, though I thought he did fine). “Six times tonight I have said to Governor Pence I can’t imagine how you can defend your running mate’s position. And he has not,” Kaine declared. Sadly, the media let Pence get away with it.
But Kaine had another charge, as he told me in 2016: He wanted to normalize that a man could be led by—even take orders from—a woman. Harris has a different and more complicated task: to defer to the white man at the top of the ticket, and yet display the talent, ambition, and smarts—frankly, the 400 years of Black women’s grit and brilliance in this country—that got her here.
She’s already gotten plenty of advice. “The key thing with Pence is that you have to separate out style from substance,” Bob Barnett, who played Kaine’s stand-in for Pence in 2016, told Politico. “He will come across as very measured, very thoughtful and very smooth—very unlike President Trump. But out of his mouth will come these wild Trumpisms.”
There is so much substance on which Harris can hit Pence. As a champion of marriage equality in California, she can pummel him on his opposition to it (especially in light of the recent conservative Supreme Court side-eye on Obergefell). She ought to take him apart on the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act during a pandemic that’s now torn through the White House—especially since he (nominally) chairs the pandemic task force under Trump. She might ask why, as task force head, he failed to keep his boss safe from Covid.
Harris is known to prepare, and maybe over-prepare, for debates and everything else. But over-preparing seems impossible at this point. In this news environment, the two wannabe VPs could learn mid-debate that the president is back in the hospital, that Covid-19 is super-spreading in Washington (D.C.), New York City, and San Francisco, and that Vladimir Putin just purchased 17 floors in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. Harris needs to channel her inner Maya Rudolph and just roll with the insanity.
She will be fine.
One thing she can’t entirely prepare for is Pence’s intrinsic disrespect and discomfort with her, which I predict will corrode whatever pretense of esteem he shows her. Hillary Clinton put it perfectly the other day. “I think that what Mike Pence will try to do is somehow subtly undercut Kamala,” she said during a fundraiser with Harris. She advised the nominee to “modulate her responses because we know there still is a double standard alive and well when it comes to women in politics.” In other words, Pence will try to “other” Harris—subtly or blatantly signal that she is an outlier who doesn’t quite belong on that stage with him.
I don’t like to second-guess Clinton, who should have been our first woman president (imagine one-tenth the Covid infections and deaths, or less, and a thriving economy). She has lived this. But I still hope to see a flash of the unmodulated Kamala Harris tonight. This country deserves—in fact, needs to see—someone bring the anger and anguish we all feel, suffering through this awful year, brought upon us mostly by this inept, mostly evil team in charge. Especially given the racial strife of 2020, many of us would like to see a Black woman express it.
I trust Harris to find a way to do that. And I can’t wait.