The most memorable elements of Wednesday’s vice presidential debate had little to do with the campaign itself. One of the top Google search results was pink-eye. At one point, a fly landed on Mike Pence’s head and stayed there for two minutes before disappearing—as if it, too, had somewhere it would rather be.
The VP debate shouldn’t move the needle—it never does—but it does offer a glimpse of two campaigns at radically different places right now. And right now, the Trump campaign just doesn’t have a lot in its tank. Pence, far more so than Trump in his debate last week, stuck to his message and hit the talking points like he’d practiced them in a mirror. He spoke directly to “the American people” a few times, furrowed his brow when he wanted to look disappointed (which was often), and even said something nice about Sen. Kamala Harris, congratulating her on her selection to the ticket. But his performance showed just how weak the Republican ticket’s hand really is right now.
On COVID-19, which Pence was tasked with leading the administration’s response to, the vice president struggled to land a punch. Like Trump before him, Pence invoked the Obama administration’s handling of the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. The White House botched that pandemic badly, Pence claimed, adding that if the virus had been as deadly as COVID-19, two million people could have died. That’s a pretty big if! Asking voters to blame Joe Biden for what happened to them in an alternate universe than the one in which they lived only underscores how flimsy Pence and Trump’s record is on this pandemic. Is a counterfactual about swine flu really the best they can do? At this point, it seems like it.
A similar problem occurred when Pence tried to attack Biden for opposing an early shutdown on travel from China. Pence explained that the travel restriction had bought the country critical time by which to prepare for a pandemic. But that’s only a good message if the country then subsequently prepared for the pandemic. As Harris rightly noted, Trump spent months downplaying the virus, killing time instead of using it. “They knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you,” she said. It’s tough to rebut something the president bragged about on tape. Pence did his best to pick and choose stats and moments that would demonstrate leadership, but there’s not really anything he can say that can reverse what Trump has done. More than 210,000 people are dead. This is all they’ve got.
When the conversation shifted to the Supreme Court, Pence downplayed the charge that Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett would support overturning Roe v. Wade. (Barrett’s position is, in fact, pretty clear; she even signed onto a newspaper advertisement in the past calling for the decision to be overturned.)
Instead, Pence preferred to redirect the Supreme Court question to Harris, trying to pin her down on whether she and Biden would pack the court if Barrett is confirmed and the Democrats win the White House. It’s not a bad question, actually, and the Democratic ticket has been cagey about its answer. (Harris didn’t provide one.) Court-packing would certainly be a big departure for Democrats and the Supreme Court, but does anyone really think the election is going to hinge on it? It’s a desperation play you call when the things the election actually is about are trending in the wrong direction. And perhaps the kind of argument you lean on when the decision to move forward with the nomination is as unpopular as it is.
The best card in Pence’s hand—the one that at one point they believed made them favorites for reelection—was the economy. Pence repeatedly invoked the strength of the American economy for much of Trump’s term, and highlighted the flawed recovery out of the Great Recession (which, as Harris noted, Biden was responsible for shepherding in the Obama administration). This was a slam-dunk case at one point—an argument that fit on the proverbial bumper sticker. But it’s not 2019 anymore. The economy is a disaster, Disneyland is shut down, the airlines are in hell, most of the restaurants in my city are on the chopping block, and there’s a looming eviction crisis that Washington is doing nothing to avert. At this point, trying to brag about the economy is only reminding voters how bad things have gotten—and how much worse they’ll likely get.
Pence was characteristically unflappable, and after watching Trump, it’s sort of surreal to see someone as relentlessly on-message and well-prepped as he was. But there just wasn’t much Pence could do on Wednesday. These are some problems even Regeneron can’t fix.