President Trump can learn a lot from Mike Pence

He may have lost the debate, but he didn't behave like a maniac

President Trump and Mike Pence.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Vice President Mike Pence held his own with Democratic nominee Joe Biden's running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, in their first and last debate. To be sure, the vice president repeatedly lied and leaned into deeply unpopular opinions, such as the idea that nightmare fires and mercury-melting summer temperatures are "climate alarmism" rather than catastrophic global warming, but he did so with the longstanding Republican flair for lying calmly and shamelessly that successfully characterized the GOP before the rise of Donald Trump. And it was a reminder of how much better off the Republican Party would be with someone like Pence at the helm rather than the erratic and repellant president himself that even his deeply slimy performance was significantly better than anything Trump could produce on his best day.

This is not to say that Pence won the debate. On balance, he probably lost it, because his job was to defend the record of a widely despised president in the midst of a national calamity that the president himself has intentionally exacerbated. A CNN post-debate poll — the only scientific survey available at the time this article was written — confirms that Harris was judged the winner by a decisive majority of viewers. After a somewhat slow start, when she returned to the Trump administration's evasive early response to the coronavirus outbreak one too many times, she got her jabs in, hitting Trump on some of his most yawning vulnerabilities, including his hot ongoing mess of a COVID response and his problematic tax returns.

Harris also had a number of potentially viral moments, particularly when she looked directly at the camera and told the audience that Trump and Pence "are coming for you" on pre-existing conditions and other popular elements of the Affordable Care Act, when she slammed Trump for his well-documented disdain for American troops, and when she struck the exact right, measured tone when speaking about the unjust police murder of Breonna Taylor. She successfully returned again and again to the theme of the ACA in jeopardy, to remind voters that the Trump administration is in court, right now, trying to have the whole thing invalidated, pre-existing conditions and all. And she rightly stood up to Pence's line-stepping, insisting that "I'm speaking" and "It's my time," in a way that surely resonated with millions of long-suffering women who are exhausted with this kind of behavior from men and who seem poised to vote for Biden by 30 points or more.

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Pence's insistence on the "right to life," meanwhile, might play well with people already firmly in the president's camp, but it is wildly out of step with American public opinion on the issue of reproductive rights. And he failed to consistently land his planned debate strategy of painting Harris as a tool of the left, spending precious time meandering through some weird and inscrutable (though tragic!) story about someone who Joe Biden could allegedly have saved 8 years ago, and the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, a distant event from the far away time of January 2020 that almost no one in this country could possibly care about right now.

Pence's long, digressive attack on the Obama administration's response to the 2009 H1N1 "swine flu" pandemic was also a bizarre and time-wasting homage to a niche hobbyhorse of right-wing media that has absolutely no resonance with the broader electorate, which barely remembers that pandemic at all because it didn't kill 200,000 Americans people in 7 months. Whatever the merits of fracking as a policy, Pence was unable to overcome Harris's insistence that a Biden administration wouldn't ban it.

This all sounds pretty bad for Mike Pence and the GOP! But the vice president did not embarrass himself and his party, as Trump has done every time he has debated Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, for the very simple reason that he is not completely out of his mind. Pence might not be able to fill arenas with thrumming crowds and people willing to die for him, but last night's rote debate performance is what voters expect, if not what thrills them. At the beginning of the proceedings, he took the time to thank the moderator and to acknowledge the historic nature of Kamala Harris' selection as vice president.

This might seem like a small thing, but after four years of a president incapable of these small moments of decency, even if they are insincere, it felt different. Voters outside of the hardcore party bases yearn for graciousness and comity. The vice president frequently did his best to deliver. Unlike Trump, Pence acknowledged the suffering of ordinary Americans whose lives have been destroyed by the pandemic. He didn't lose his cool. He also capably defended the administration's terrible response to the virus, at one point turning the tables (absurdly! But rhetorically effectively!) on Harris by insisting that she should listen to the science on vaccines.

More importantly, rather than melting down into a puddle of emotional incontinence every three seconds like the president, Pence remained unflustered and hit his talking points relentlessly. While he interrupted Harris here and there, for the most part he avoided appearing tasteless. He managed to talk past his allotted speaking slot just long enough to get his points in, but not so interminably as to appear as boorish and desperate as Trump did during the first debate.

Objectively, he was boorish. He kept yapping past his time so often that he forced moderator Susan Page to reiterate the agreed-upon rules, and eventually goaded Harris into pulling the same maneuver. But his behavior was within the boundaries of the public's very low expectations of politicians at these affairs. And both he and Harris ignored Page's questions again and again to talk about whatever they chose. Because the Commission on Presidential Debates seemingly forbade moderators from following up or calling out the candidates for their refusal to answer simple queries, the net effect was that both candidates sometimes got away with being cagey — on court-packing for Harris and, perhaps more memorably for Pence, on whether President Trump will concede an election he has lost.

That's why, whatever the post-debate polls say, Pence might have stopped the bleeding for the reeling Trump campaign even with a losing performance. Hardcore MAGA types might not want to hear this, but polling supports the idea that Pence would be the stronger force at the top of the ticket than Trump, and last night's scuffle showed why. While Republican political positions are increasingly — even destructively — unpopular, the messenger matters. Before Trump arrived on the scene, Republicans controlled the House and the Senate, and many of their more ordinary presidential candidates, like Marco Rubio, held leads in head-to-head matchups with 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. On an Earth-2 where Trump decided to start a TV network instead of running for president, Rubio would almost certainly be coasting to re-election, perhaps without ever having lost the House at all in 2018.

You can think of Pence as a slightly duller — but perhaps steadier and more unflappable — Rubio. He is destined to be unpopular, because the American public increasingly loathes Republican governance and policy. But given the GOP's structural advantages in the U.S. political system, the difference between Trump's radioactivity and Pence's more workaday unpopularity could be the difference between winning the occasional national election over the next decade and spending the entire era as an embittered, powerless minority party.

If Trump has any sense at all, he will emulate Pence's performance in the vice presidential debate when he takes the stage again on October 15th (assuming he is not still a COVID vector). And if the president can't do that, he shouldn't be surprised if some of the more outlandish polls showing Biden winning by 14 or 16 points turn out to be clairvoyant.

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David Faris

David Faris is an associate professor of political science at Roosevelt University and the author of It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. He is a frequent contributor to Informed Comment, and his work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Indy Week.