Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate was like traveling back in time to an era when political debates were tough, respectful and substantive. And Vice President Mike Pence put on a clinic for how to rope-a-dope your opponent. He anticipated almost every line of attack Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., had prepared, and was ready with a devastating rebuttal.
Harris’ best moment came at the start of the evening when she prosecuted the case against President Donald Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it did not go unnoticed that, unlike moderator Susan Page, Harris failed to wish the president a speedy recovery before launching into her blistering attack — a missing grace note whose absence was glaring. She also did not answer the question of what a Biden-Harris administration would do differently than the Trump administration come January.
Pence knew Biden’s plan had no original ideas that were not already being implemented. So, when Harris failed to name a single new policy idea, Pence was ready with a zinger, pointing out that the Biden-Harris plan “looks a little bit like plagiarism, which is something Joe Biden knows a little bit about.”
When Harris tried to blame the 210,000 COVID-19 deaths on the president, Pence replied that “we actually do know what failure looks like in a pandemic.” He then pointed to Biden’s disastrous handling of the 2009 swine flu pandemic — when instead of 7.5 million infections, 60 million Americans contracted the virus.
“If the swine flu had been as lethal as the coronavirus, in 2009, when Joe Biden was vice president, we would have lost 2 million American lives,” Pence said, adding that Biden’s former chief of staff Ron Klain admitted “we did every possible thing wrong” and the fact that millions had not died on his watch was pure “luck.”
When Harris launched her attack on Trump’s foreign policy decision-making, Pence pointed to the family of Kayla Mueller — a young American woman who was taken hostage by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — whom he had invited to the debate. During the Obama-Biden administration, Pence said, “we had an opportunity to save Kayla Mueller. It breaks my heart to reflect on it, but the military came into the Oval Office, presented a plan. They said they knew where Kayla was. Baghdadi had held her for 18 months, abused her mercilessly before they killed her. But when Joe Biden was vice president, they hesitated for a month. And when armed forces finally went in, it was clear she’d been moved two days earlier.”
By contrast, Pence said, Trump did not hesitate take out Baghdadi when he had the chance. He continued, noting “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris actually criticized the decision to take out Qasem Soleimani” and that “history records that Joe Biden actually opposed the raid against Osama bin Laden.” In short, Pence concluded, “it’s absolutely essential that we have a commander in chief who will not hesitate to act to protect American lives.”
When Pence warned Democrats not to attack the Christian faith of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, Harris objected that “Joe Biden and I are both people of faith, and it’s insulting to suggest that we would knock anyone for their faith.” Pence was again ready, pointing out that Harris had done just that to another Trump judicial nominee, questioning whether he was fit to serve as a judge because he was a faithful Catholic who belongs to the Knights of Columbus.
But his most effective moment was when he cornered Harris on packing the Supreme Court. Pence challenged the senator directly: “I think the American people really deserve an answer, Senator Harris. Are you and Joe Biden going to pack the court if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed?” Harris ducked the question, telling a story about how Abraham Lincoln had deferred a Supreme Court nomination until after an election and insisting that Americans should vote and decide who would name a replacement for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Pence asked again: “People are voting right now. They’d like to know if you and Joe Biden are going to pack the Supreme Court if you don’t get your way in this nomination.” When she again deflected by attacking Trump for appointing no Black people to the federal circuit courts of appeal, Pence waited for her to finish and said, “I just want the record to reflect she never answered the question. ... But I think the American people know the answer.”
Trump should study Pence’s performance. The vice president controlled the conversation without insulting or interrupting his opponent. He gave Harris the time and space to stumble into the traps he had laid for her — and then was ready with a devastating response. He was calm, studied and prepared for every line of attack. It was a presidential debate master class — and one the president should emulate when he faces Biden again next week.
Marc Thiessen served as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.