Analyzing the 2016 V.P. Debate Between Kaine and Pence

This is not Mike Pence’s first vice-presidential campaign debate. In 2016, he faced Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, Hillary Clinton’s running mate. It was a vigorous and contentious 90 minutes, and it gives a hint of what Mr. Pence might be like on Wednesday night when he debates Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate.

And a review of that 2016 matchup leaves no doubt that Mr. Pence knows the two things a vice-presidential candidate is supposed to do in a debate. The first is to defend the person at the top of your ticket, in this case President Trump. The second is to attack the person at the top of the opposing ticket: Mrs. Clinton in 2016, and Joseph R. Biden Jr. in 2020.

Mr. Kaine attacked Mr. Trump at every opportunity, and Mr. Pence was ready. He diligently defended his running mate. But typically, as was the case in this clip, he defended Mr. Trump and quickly pivoted to talk about what a Trump administration would do, or to attack President Barack Obama or Mrs. Clinton. He presumably did not want the debate to turn into a referendum on Mr. Trump, and almost certainly is coming into this year’s debate with a similar strategy. That’s likely to be more difficult this time: Mr. Trump has been president for four years, the country has been slammed by a pandemic, and Mr. Trump himself is sick.

Mr. Pence was energetic in attacking Mrs. Clinton, amplifying and expanding on the attacks Mr. Trump was making on the campaign trail. “There’s a reason why people question the trustworthiness of Hillary Clinton and that’s because they’re paying attention,” he said, smoothly delivering one of the more memorable (if no doubt scripted) lines of the night. Mr. Biden has proved to be a more elusive target than Mrs. Clinton, but the kind of attack on her record Wednesday night is likely to be reprised. (This exchange is also instructive in how Mr. Pence was able to keep control of the microphone despite Mr. Kaine’s effort to derail him.)

Mr. Pence was just as vigorous in attacking Mr. Kaine’s record as governor of Virginia, though much of this attack seems intended to build up his own credentials as governor of Indiana. Voters don’t make their decisions in presidential races based on the running mates, so there was little reason for Mr. Pence to spend too much time on Mr. Kaine.

The dynamic is different this year. Mr. Trump, frustrated in his efforts to assail Mr. Biden, has tried to portray Ms. Harris as a far-left Democrat who would be the real power in the White House should Mr. Biden win. Given the ages of the two men at the top of the ticket — Mr. Trump is 74, Mr. Biden is 77 — and Mr. Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis, a clear subtext of this matchup is that either Ms. Harris or Mr. Pence could be president one day.

Mr. Pence was forced to defend Mr. Trump on an issue that is likely to come up again on Wednesday: the president’s success at minimizing his federal tax bill. It was the subject of stories in The New York Times in 2016 and in 2020, both published just before the vice-presidential debates.

Mr. Pence was prepared for the question — arguing, as Mr. Trump has, that his running mate was a smart businessman who minimized his tax bill. “Donald Trump is a business man, not a career politician,” he said. Bonus in this exchange: Mr. Pence avoids answering the question of why Mr. Trump has not, as pledged, released his tax returns. (He still has not.)

During his debate with Mr. Kaine, Mr. Pence addressed an issue that was central in 2016 and that has returned in 2020: law and order. Mr. Pence uses a question about his views about the criticism of law enforcement to talk about his family background, before belittling critics of the police. “My uncle was a cop,” he said, going on to pay tribute to the police. From there, Mr. Pence denounced the “bad-mouthing” of law enforcement by critics who accuse the police of bias or “institutional racism.”

If Mr. Trump has his way, the issue of law and order will be even more central to this election. Mr. Trump has argued that putting Democrats in control would lead to a spike in disorder and crime, pointing to some of the demonstrations that have swept through American cities this summer. Mr. Pence can be expected to say much the same thing on Wednesday night. So far, there is little evidence that law-and-order is capturing voters’ attention the way the pandemic has, or that Mr. Trump is being lifted politically by that issue.

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