The lone vice-presidential debate on Wednesday night was, predictably, boring as shit, and a preview at what the future of political kayfabe will look like in the post-Trump world when Republicans pretend that they care about manners again. It also indicated that Mike Pence wouldn’t fare much better than Trump is currently doing if he were to be forced into being the nominee.
In theory, this debate should have been more important than usual, given that Trump is extremely sick and Joe Biden is 78 years old. In comparison with the first presidential debate, though, the vice-presidential debate was never going to be anything but tame. I watched the 2016 vice presidential debate and have literally zero recollection of anything that happened, and I suspect this is going to be the same way. (The Mike Pence Fly will go the way of Roy Moore’s Horse and Marco’s Water Glass, if it hasn’t by the time you’ve read this.)
Kamala Harris, for her part, was much more useful for Biden than Tim Kaine was to Hillary Clinton. She immediately blasted the Trump-Pence response to COVID as “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” which, unlike the other attacks on Trump, put Pence squarely on the defensive because he’s the head of the coronavirus task force.
“210,000 dead people in our country, in just the last several months,” Harris said. “One in seven million people have contracted this disease. One in five businesses closed.”
Mike Pence tried to defend the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic by attacking the Obama administration’s handling of swine flu. Given that the number of people who died (fewer than 13,000) is a fraction of those who’ve already died from COVID (206,000 and counting), there’s no contest in terms of presidential ineptitude. And given that the mainstream GOP line for months has been that the flu is worse than the coronavirus despite all evidence to the contrary, Pence’s excuse that Biden got a better disease to deal with was ridiculous.
Harris also focused on defending Biden as a moderate who loves fracking and has lots of Republican supporters, and pointed out that she was the closest thing to an actual cop out of any of these people. This was, in all likelihood, exactly what the Biden campaign wanted her to do.
Given Trump’s horrible poll numbers, which right now suggest Biden would win in a landslide, it’s easy to understand the view that Pence would have a better chance of winning. Pence’s performance Wednesday, on the other hand, failed to show that he’s even remotely likely to keep Trump’s coalition together should he have to step in as president and the Republican nominee.
That’s not to say Pence would be any less than a catastrophically destructive president were he to take over for Trump. Even poor administrative management would enable the GOP to do even more damage than it currently is to things like civil rights protections, unions, and more. And unlike Trump, who’s motivated purely by self-interest, Pence is genuinely committed to seeing through key Republican goals like the end of reproductive freedom and the continuation of unsanctioned capitalism, and the projects to get them there, such as filling the courts with far-right judges.
But ultimately, Pence is not a natural successor to Trump. It’s one of the reasons Trump, someone who famously resents being overshadowed, chose him in the first place; Pence is in no way a political threat to him. Pence couldn’t even directly answer the question about whether he has “safeguards” in place with Trump, who was in the hospital with a deadly illness and several high-risk factors all of two days ago. (Harris avoided it too, but Pence’s answer is decidedly more pressing for obvious reasons.)
There were several people similar to or exactly like him in the 2016 Republican primary—Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker—and Trump walked over every single one of them. If Pence had run, it’s hard to imagine him even making it that far. Before Trump chose him as his running mate, in fact, Pence’s gubernatorial re-election effort in conservative Indiana was in real jeopardy.
He hasn’t gotten any better at this since then. For someone who’s been Trump’s vice president for three years, Pence still has little understanding of Trump’s base beyond the traditional Republican parts. It’s all about owning the libs and spitting on diversity and Pence is basically a religious puritan with neocon tendencies, which is why the segment where he congratulated Kamala Harris on “the historic nature of your nomination” was so painfully awkward. And considering how closely he’s tied to Trump, it’s difficult to imagine him bringing many new people into the coalition.
If we’re lucky, Pence will go the way of Dan Quayle and be known forevermore as a replacement-level weird guy from Indiana. If Wednesday was Pence’s attempt at reassuring terrified Republicans, that looks increasingly likely to happen.