In most election years, America’s quadrennial vice-presidential debate — the sole matchup between the two politicians vying to spend the next four years as the world’s most famous second banana — is an afterthought. But this year? Not so much.
In 2008, 72-year-old Senator John McCain’s selection of the untested and largely unknown Alaska Governor Sarah Palin focused the eyes of the nation on her contest with then-Delaware Senator Joe Biden. Surprisingly large numbers of people watched the showdown. And Biden’s selection of California Senator Kamala Harris to be the first African-American woman to appear on a major-party general election ticket has the potential to push ratings for her Wednesday night debate against Vice President Mike Pence past the 70 million viewers who watched the Biden-Palin event.
Another factor that could both juice ratings and raise the stakes for Wednesday’s matchup? The fact that the two major party tickets are headed by Donald Trump — the oldest ever President of the United States — and Biden, the man who would supplant him as the oldest should he prevail in November’s election. Trump’s recent bout with Covid-19 could further focus voters’ attention on the match between Harris and Pence, the man who is currently one obese 74-year-old Covid patient’s heartbeat away from the presidency.
Unlike the last time a man and a woman squared off in a vice-presidential debate, both candidates go into this one with significant experience in such contests. Harris is a seasoned politician who has participated in multiple debates during her campaigns for local office, two different statewide offices in California, and her yearlong quest to place her name on the top of Democrats’ 2020 ticket. Pence is a veteran of his sole debate against 2016 Democratic vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine, as well as multiple debates during previous congressional and gubernatorial campaigns in his home state of Indiana.
The current Vice President was widely considered the winner of his matchup with Kaine, particularly because the junior senator from Virginia was seen as too hesitant to go on the attack against Pence’s record as Indiana’s governor — and because Pence could use Trump’s alleged business experience as a theoretical strength for a candidate who had never held public office.
Not a single Biden-Harris campaign representative responded to queries on the campaign’s expectations for Senator Harris’ performance. But the man who took on the role of Pence during Kaine’s debate preparation sessions, Washington uber-lawyer Robert Barnett, predicts that the Vice President's newest opponent will have a wide variety of rhetorical targets to choose from in formulating her plan of attack.
“It's a whole different situation than 2016, because there's not going to be one moment of discussion of his Indiana record — the discussion is going to be of the President's record and his record over four years of incumbency," Barnett told me, adding that it is “unlikely that there will be a quarter-inch of daylight between [Pence] and the President” no matter what lines of inquiry Harris uses to try and impeach the Trump-Pence record.
Barnett opined that Pence’s matchup with Harris could be “much harder” for him “because he has to defend a record that's largely compiled by another person” this year. “In 2016, he had to defend then-candidate Trump as a reality show host and a real estate developer. Now he's got to defend the top of the ticket as a four-year incumbent, and that's a very different burden," he explained.
The last person to debate Pence other than Senator Kaine — former Indiana House Speaker John R Gregg — predicted that Pence’s shoulders can bear that burden without much effort.
“He’s the most disciplined debater and speaker I have ever seen, and I’ve dealt in Indiana politics for 40 years,” said Gregg, who debated Pence when he ran against him for Indiana’s governorship in 2012.
Gregg said Pence’s strengths as a debater are his ability to speak in “short, short clips” and “soundbite readings” that are ready to be printed as quotes or packaged in advertisements or social media videos. He also benefits from an almost preternatural ability to maintain message discipline no matter what.
“He’ll be a bastard at staying on message,” Gregg explained. “Whatever message it is that the Trump people want him to deliver that night, come hell or high water you won’t get him off it.”
Gregg added that Pence’s discipline means it is unlikely that he will be thrown off balance by pre-scripted attack lines, no matter how cleverly phrased. This could be a problem for Harris, who briefly surged in Democratic primary polls after she unveiled one such line against former Vice President Biden during the first Democratic primary debate.
Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Stephen Cooley, who squared off against Harris during his unsuccessful 2010 campaign to be California’s Attorney General, said the use of such prepared lines is one of her go-to debate tactics.
“She will have some scripted zingers that she has memorized, that she will use if she can find an opportune moment, just like she did for Biden,” he explained. “Not always that true, but very dramatic, and gets a lot of coverage.”
Another Harris debate tic, Cooley said, is a tendency to laugh as a placeholder when she is trying to gather her thoughts to answer a question, in the same way many speakers would use filler words like “uh” or “um”.
“It's a habit she has when she's trying to formulate her thoughts — she will sort of laugh, and oftentimes it's inappropriate but it gives her a few moments to analyze the question,” he said. “If Pence is smart, he’ll spot it and bring it to the viewing audience’s attention.”
Cooley opined that Harris is unlikely to have changed such longstanding habits, but she will nevertheless arrive prepared to say what she wants to say and should not be underestimated.
When she takes to the debate stage on Wednesday, Harris will become just the third woman to appear in a vice-presidential debate, and the first African-American of either gender to appear in a vice-presidential general election debate.
Barnett, who helped prepare Geraldine Ferraro for her debate against George H W Bush in 1984 and assisted Hillary Clinton as she prepared for multiple debates over her primary and general election campaigns for the Senate and the presidency, said Harris’ gender will undoubtedly become a factor in Wednesday’s contest, particularly given Pence’s well-known attitudes towards women.
If Pence makes any missteps that give Harris the sort of opening Ferraro used to chastise Bush for “lecturing” her about foreign policy in 1984, Barnett predicted that the women of America will take notice.
"By his own admission, he has certain ways that he deals with women. And those will undoubtedly affect his attitude towards debating a woman," he said. "The male-female dynamic always becomes relevant in these things. As for how it'll play out, time will tell, but that'll be something that women will be particularly watching.”
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