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Schapiro: Back to the future in VP debate
Political PTSD

Schapiro: Back to the future in VP debate

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For Virginians, it might not have been possible to watch the vice presidential debate without suffering PTSD.

Visions of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine’s rumble with Mike Pence four years ago in Farmville must have pounded in voters’ heads this past Wednesday night as Pence, given to bursts of patronizing mansplaining, quarreled with Kamala Harris, whose disapproving glare could be more withering than some of her one-liners.

There was a bit of role reversal in 2020.

Pence, the supposed kinder, gentler face of Trump-ism, was more aggressive with Harris, the first woman of color on a national ticket, than he was with Kaine, whose snarling, out-of-character performance in 2016 led some to believe that it actually was the heretofore-unknown evil twin of America’s Dad seated opposite the beatific governor of Indiana.

Kaine, who offered pointers on Pence in tête-à-têtes with Harris and her handlers, including presidential candidate-turned-Pence stand-in Pete Buttigieg, ahead of the debate in Salt Lake City, noticed the difference and attributed it to a question that famously shaped a presidential debate 40 years ago.

“When you get to 2020 and one of the tickets is an incumbent ticket, it fundamentally alters the debate,” Kaine, a former governor, said via Zoom Thursday. “It’s kind of like the Reagan question in the Jimmy Carter debate in 1980, and looking at the American public: ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’”

In 2016, with the White House open after eight years of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, the tickets — Hillary Clinton and Kaine for the Democrats; Donald Trump and Pence for the Republicans — largely were on offense, offering competing visions for the four years ahead.

In 2020, however, Trump and Pence have much for which to answer, most recently the deadly pandemic and its debilitating effect on the economy. Pence knows, Kaine said, that demanded that he use every minute of his time — and some of Harris’, often by talking over the California senator or moderator Susan Page of USA Today — to lay out the Republican alternate reality.

“Usually the more aggressive one is the challenger, not the incumbent,” said Kaine, summing up the candidates’ performance this way: “I felt Kamala was strong and I felt Mike was slick.”

Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney and state attorney general, was prosecutorial, connecting disparate dots for a damning depiction of a Trump administration already viewed, if you believe the national polls, as dysfunctional. Pence could be Pence-ive, affecting his pious mien while artfully, if you believe the national fact-checkers, bending the truth.

“He’s a good communicator,” Kaine said of Pence. “He was a radio talk show host. He can deliver a line.”

But, Kaine continued, Pence’s “happy talk kind of strikes a dissonant chord” and he was “probably overly on the offense as an incumbent, because he had so much he had to explain.”

So did Kaine after his junkyard-dog shtick against Pence at Longwood University. Kaine’s friends and family still wince when the subject comes up.

Kaine’s assignment from the Clinton high command was to, figuratively, get Pence on the mat and keep him there, reeling off Trump’s numerous reported misdeeds — many of them issues in this campaign — and reminding voters that Pence had excused them.

Kaine did so, much as Pence would do with Harris, by interrupting and spitting out zingers while the Republican sat quietly, his body language, right down to the doe eyes, telegraphing puzzled disbelief. The result: At times, Pence — the embodiment of a particularly stern brand of conservatism — seemed a sympathetic figure.

“He’s asking people to vote for somebody he can’t defend,” Kaine would say of Pence during evening in which Kaine’s emphasis on Trump’s roguish business dealings, disputed tax bills, huge debts, alleged misogyny and nativism would be dismissed by Pence as an “insult-driven campaign.”

That Kaine, other than several Indiana pols, is among the few people on the planet to debate Pence meant that, for Harris, the Virginian was a go-to guy.

Recalling his conversation with Buttigieg, who as a mayor of South Bend, Ind., watched Pence up close, Kaine said, “The one thing we probably talked about the most was the difference between 2016 and 2020. Meaning that in 2016 neither ticket was the incumbent, so the debates — presidential and vice presidential — were largely about ‘Here’s what we’ll do’ or ‘Here’s what the other side will do.’”

But four years on, Democrats are offering an indictment, Republicans, a distraction, with both relying on the intemperate brand of politics that was on full display at Longwood — the pre- and post-debate handshakes shared by Kaine and Pence, notwithstanding.

The university’s president, W. Taylor Reveley IV, at his inaugural in 2013, noted the rich symbolism of Longwood’s location in the rural Southside — “where the Civil War ended and civil rights began.”

And, in 2016, where civility would gasp.

Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or jschapiro@timesdispatch.com. Listen to his podcast, Capitol Chat, on Richmond.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis at 8:45 a.m. Friday on VPM News, 88.9 FM.

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