Four years ago, when Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was on the edge of implosion, Mike Pence stopped the bleeding and saved the day.
He bested Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, in the vice-presidential debate and bought the Trump campaign needed time to steady itself.
It doubtless was asking too much for Pence, now vice president, to perform the same magic trick again.
But the nature in which he failed at Wednesday night’s vice-presidential debate against Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, was both revealing and illuminating.
Pence, who advanced his political career as a radio talk show host, once had as fine-tuned an appreciation of an audience’s responses as anyone in America. He could understand where his listeners were and, thus, when to go soft and when to go hard.
That’s what allowed him to dispatch Kaine with relative ease in 2016.
But it’s a knack, after these years in Trump world, that seems to have deserted Pence.
Perhaps that was the most striking thing about his showdown with Harris.
Time and again, Pence’s ability to discern how he was playing before the crowd abandoned him. Over and over, he talked well past his time limit, ignoring or disregarding the requests of moderator Susan Page of USA Today to wrap up and show respect for the rules, his opponent and the audience.
That — along with the fly that landed on his head at one point and became mired in the hairspray adorning the vice-presidential coif — will be the dominant image and memory of this debate.
Pence at his peak would have realized that the optics of talking over not one, but two women — several times, he interrupted Harris, allowing her to rejoin, with icy dignity, “Mr. Vice President, I am speaking” — were not good.
In fact, they were horrible.
Pence’s run-on after run-on came across as the worst kind of mansplaining.
In an election that looks like it will be decided in America’s suburbs — and by independent and moderate Republican female voters in those suburbs — Pence’s determination to override the voices of two women before a national audience bordered on being politically self-destructive.
To be sure, he offered some red meat to the Trump base.
He did his best to assail Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden for being weak on China. He tried to attack, somewhat nonsensically, Biden and Harris for politicizing the coronavirus pandemic — an odd claim, given that Trump and Pence tried to turn the daily COVID-19 briefings into campaign events until they discovered their attempts were bombing. And he reassured social conservatives that he was unapologetically pro-life.
But that, too, was odd.
A campaign that still is trying, this late in an election cycle, to reassure and cement its base is losing.
When Pence couldn’t pivot to attack, he either ducked or floundered.
That happened a lot.
Harris had an easier task in some ways, and she performed it well.
Sadly, in terms of public perceptions, any woman — particularly any woman of color — must walk a tightrope in adversarial situations. She must stand her ground without seeming to be too angry or unduly confrontational.
Harris did that, in part because her job played to her strengths as a former prosecutor. She had to lay out facts and make a case.
That she did.
She excoriated Trump and Pence on their handling of the pandemic, mentioning again and again the more than 210,0000 American deaths the coronavirus has caused. She established that the president and the vice president knew how deadly the disease was going to be and chose not to warn the American people. And she linked their refusal both to the economic slowdown with millions of jobs lost and to the Trump administration’s efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act and strip millions of Americans of health coverage.
Harris also delivered the night’s most devastating line:
“There was a time when our country believed in science.”
Pence flailed during those moments, swinging back like a punch-drunk fighter who had no idea where the blows raining down on him were coming from. Worse, he rambled on as he did so, speaking over the moderator and allowing Harris to smile and shake her head on the split screen.
Pence fought on, gamely but not wisely.
The past four years haven’t been good to him.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.