Mike Pence, Peerless Trump Defender, Confronts His Limits in Debate

Vice President Mike Pence approached his task on Wednesday as he has approached his four years as the executive straight man to an unruly leader: not merely defending President Trump but effectively insisting, with poker-faced conviction, that those who doubt his boss should not believe their eyes and ears.

The trouble this time was not Mr. Pence’s skill set on this front, which remains peerless. It was the fact set underpinning this debate, which remains inconvenient to an administration so overwhelmed by the virus that its own West Wing has become a hot spot.

And so Mr. Pence — stripped of most politically palatable explanations for the White House pandemic response — set off on a curious charge when Senator Kamala Harris said that the Trump team’s leadership “clearly” has not worked: He chose to hear it as a direct affront to the American people.

“When you say what the American people have done over these last eight months hasn’t worked,” Mr. Pence said gravely, as controlled as his president is rambunctious onstage, “that’s a great disservice to the sacrifices the American people have made.”

At last, the strain seemed to be showing, at least a little. Perhaps that is what a full term of wear-and-tear can do to even the most accomplished rhetorical gymnast.

Or perhaps the reality is simply too bleak for any administration to explain away entirely: The president has contracted the virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans on his watch. His behavior, since leaving the hospital on Monday, appears to be a continuation of the kind of scientifically dubious happy talk that has left the Trump-Pence ticket at a significant polling disadvantage four weeks before Election Day.

Even the stagecraft on Wednesday included a conspicuous reminder of the administration’s failings: Plexiglass barriers separated the candidates, owing to the virus’s march through the ranks of the capital.

But Mr. Pence also knows his template by now: a neighborly gaze, a shake of the head, a rose-colored rebuttal delivered with the generic tranquillity of a greeting card.

“There’s not a day gone by that I haven’t thought of every American family that’s lost a loved one,” he said, flashing the kind of empathy rarely associated with Mr. Trump. “And I want all of you to know that you’ll always be in our hearts and in our prayers.”

It felt at times like the ultimate test of Mr. Pence’s longstanding exercise in Trump translation for those who might find the president objectionable.

Where others see chaos, the vice president unfurled paeans to Mr. Trump’s purported steadiness. Where experts have faulted the administration for a reckless indifference to medical guidance, Mr. Pence said they had saved many lives. Where skeptics identify Mr. Trump as he appears to them — rash, myopic, consumed with appearances, according to even his own advisers — Mr. Pence dwelled on the president he chooses to see.

“From the very first day,” he maintained, “President Donald Trump has put the health of America first.”

For Ms. Harris, the mandate was in some ways less complicated. While she had the semi-awkward task of boosting a nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., whom she famously hammered at a debate during the Democratic primary last year, Ms. Harris and Mr. Biden have not overseen the present national crises. They do not have to answer for shortcomings in the federal coronavirus response.

Facing Mr. Pence, Ms. Harris was very much the candidate Democrats might remember from her own presidential run: undeniable talent — and more than a few ably deployed preplanned attacks — mixed with sporadic shakiness when there was no obvious script to follow, including an evasive exchange about whether she supports adding seats to the Supreme Court.

She did on several occasions remind Mr. Pence that she was the one speaking, negotiating his interruptions by noting that the rules were clear and she had the floor.

But by and large, her argument — like the Democrats’ generally — was quite straightforward: Look around. Have things gone well?

“The American people have had to sacrifice far too much,” Ms. Harris said, “because of the incompetence of this administration.”

Ceding virtually no ground to criticisms of the administration’s pandemic performance, Mr. Pence made an adamant case that the country was humming, especially economically, before the virus felled Mr. Trump’s momentum — and would be again, if only Americans allow them to stay at the controls.

Through it all, Mr. Pence demonstrated that he was a master of running out the clock without answering the question. When asked whether voters deserved to know the truth about the president’s health, Mr. Pence bought time by thanking the moderator (it was not clear for what) and thanking his opponent.

He lauded the “exceptional” doctors at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and said he was grateful for bipartisan well-wishes that the president would recover from the virus.

“The American people have a right to know about the health and well being of their president,” he said, claiming inaccurately that there had been “transparency” since Mr. Trump’s diagnosis, and moving on.

When asked directly about what states would do if the court overturned Roe v. Wade — an issue that could alienate the suburban women voters Mr. Trump needs — Mr. Pence talked about the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani. He then attacked Democrats for raising questions about Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Christian faith, which prominent Democrats have studiously avoided doing since her selection. The debate moved on. He later restated his bona fides as a “pro-life” politician without explaining how he would want the state he once governed to change its laws.

He also politely plowed through his time limits, and in his measured voice made meritless claims about what the administration has done. “The climate is changing, we’ll follow the science,” he said. (When Mr. Trump visited California last month, for a briefing on the wildfires ravaging the West, he said the opposite. “I don’t think science knows, actually,” he said, when challenged that there was more behind the fires than forest management.)

The electoral value of Mr. Pence’s careful rebranding of the Trump years is far from certain. Polls show most voters quite firm in their views of the race, and vice-presidential debates are rarely decisive events, at least in less disorienting times.

If nothing else, Republicans hope, Mr. Pence highlighted the potential benefits of a more disciplined approach to re-election, one that Mr. Trump has never pursued.

Campaign aides had been hoping the debate would be an opportunity for a reset after one of its most damaging weeks, a moment when the spotlight could shift away from a sick president and allow his lieutenant’s smooth baritone to reassure anxious seniors about the administration’s stewardship during the virus outbreak.

But those who know Mr. Trump suspected that no matter how well Mr. Pence acquitted himself on Wednesday, the president would invariably return the subject to himself before long, whether or not this was politically wise.

Maybe this is why Mr. Pence has mostly carried himself with a narrow set of goals in mind: project loyalty, yes, but also stay functionally uninteresting — partly because of his temperament and partly by design, lest the president ever feel threatened.

The result, particularly relative to the presidential debate last week, was a gathering marked by far less disorder or manifest hostility. So unsurprising were the proceedings that the most unpredictable turn may have been a black bug settling into Mr. Pence’s sweep of white hair for an extended stay.

All night, he took care to be unfailingly polite, thanking Ms. Harris and Mr. Biden for expressing “genuine concern” for Mr. Trump’s health and congratulating her on “the historic nature of your nomination.”

As in his television interviews and stump speeches as vice president, Mr. Pence — widely thought to have an eye on a presidential run himself — allowed almost no daylight between himself and Mr. Trump.

Despite the fact that the defining characteristic of his tenure has been loyalty, the noises about Mr. Pence’s would-be replacements as running mate were not even quieted by his acceptance of the nomination at the convention in August.

Still, it is weeks like this that show why those casual conversations never blossomed into serious considerations. Mr. Pence is the unswerving associate, what his advisers describe as a “game day player.”

Ms. Harris’s debate record has been less consistent, with former aides describing a hyper-preparedness that has served her well in major Senate committee hearings but a penchant for political stumbles at times when she is required to think on her feet.

At one point on Wednesday, pressed on her position about expanding the size of the Supreme Court, Ms. Harris tried to steer the discussion to Lincoln-era fare.

“I just want the record to reflect she never answered the question,” Mr. Pence said.

Like Mr. Pence, Ms. Harris is also a figure with presumed presidential aspirations after 2020, elevated to this stage on Wednesday by a man who has called himself a “bridge” to the next generation of Democratic leaders.

And for all her prominence as an anti-Trump Democrat since joining the Senate in 2017, her appearance on Wednesday registered as a new data point in her history-making arc: She is the first Black woman to represent a major-party ticket in a general election debate. That she chose not to linger too long on this fact is at once a signal of the minefields that women of color encounter in national politics — and of how much more there was to talk about, for better or worse.

Ms. Harris did repeatedly pause to note Mr. Pence’s interjections, saying that as a former prosecutor she would not “sit here and be lectured by the vice president on what it means to enforce the laws of our country.”

As for Ms. Harris’s broader aim — tying Mr. Pence to the words and deeds of the president — her opponent at times did much of the work.

Toward the end, Mr. Pence was asked what his role would be if Mr. Trump refused a peaceful transfer of power. He did not answer but in his deflection revealed plenty about his place in the partnership: Whatever stylistic differences might make him more acceptable to moderate Republicans, there is never any space between himself and the president.

“I think we’re going to win this election,” Mr. Pence said. Then he accused the F.B.I. of spying on their 2016 campaign.

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