What is Mike Pence? When the painted smile fades and the glazed eyes begin to focus on reality, is there an honest penny in him?
For the next three months, the core question of whether Pence has any core is the only real target for America’s history-making vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris.
As much as the Trump campaign wants to scare the bejesus out of its old, white base with terrifying tales about Krazy Kamala, her own policy positions don’t really matter. Like every other veep candidate, Harris doesn’t deliver a voter bloc or state. She doesn’t displace the top of the ticket because veeps never do.
All that matters is one debate night, in Salt Lake City, in early October. And even that night will be quickly overshadowed by the second presidential debate a week later.
How can the summer’s biggest political story – except for the pandemic, recession and racial justice protests – be so easily dismissed? To understand that dynamic, you need look no further than Joe Biden and Pence.
Back in 2008, Barack Obama’s pick of Biden as his running mate was everything Harris is today: a counterweight to everything he wasn’t. Biden offered some older, whiter balance to the first African American nominee for president.
He also undercut Obama’s main claim to that nomination: opposing the war in Iraq. Biden had voted for the invasion, even as he turned into a sharp critic of the war like every other Democrat.
How did Obama overcome his policy differences with Biden on the campaign trail? He didn’t need to.
There was some chemistry between the Obamas and the Bidens on the day they walked out on stage in Springfield, Illinois, near the old state capitol. But more often that not, the chemistry story was overblown: Obama was a disciplined speaker where Biden was not. Obama chose not to wait his turn; Biden had spent his career waiting for his turn.
Obama was the main choice, while Biden played a supporting role. Nobody voted for Barack Obama because of Joe Biden.
Fast-forward eight years, and somehow the cosmos threw up Donald Trump and Mike Pence. Setting aside the strong possibility that nobody else was desperate enough to take the job, Pence represented a thin crust of establishment respectability on the molten lava of anti-immigrant, white supremacist, pro-Russian, self-enrichment they call Trump’s populism.
Pence undercuts so much of what passes for Trump’s politics. He built his career as a Christian conservative and fiscal hawk leading the House Republican study committee, becoming an anti-abortion, budget-cutting governor of Indiana. Somehow he signed up to play the role of cardboard cutout to a thrice-married president who paid off a porn star and blew open the federal deficit well before the pandemic struck.
[Pence's] biblically-sized differences with Trump did nothing to change perceptions of the presidential nominee
His biblically-sized differences with Trump did nothing to change perceptions of the presidential nominee. They did, however, raise serious questions about whether the exceptionally principled Pence had any principles whatsoever.
Still, nobody voted for Donald Trump because of Mike Pence.
Which brings us to the forthcoming Harris-Pence struggle for definition. Above all else, Harris reflects something we may stupidly take for granted in this circling of the drain we call politics in the era of Donald Trump.
Through her own accomplishments, she meets the only standard relevant to a veep pick: she looks and sounds presidential because she is. In this dystopian world, Harris sails above the presidential bar that has been lowered to jackboot level by an old man who admires neo-Nazis and autocrats in equal measure.
A former district attorney and attorney general, Harris has navigated law and politics while Trump has evaded both. It’s no coincidence that her Senate grilling of Trump’s attorneys general have gone viral.
For Democrats, Harris is a return to the Obama vision of America: diverse and driven by social justice. “Her own life story is one that I and so many others can see in ourselves,” Obama said in a statement on Tuesday. “A story that says that no matter where you come from, what you look like, how you worship, or who you love, there’s a place for you here.”
For Republicans like Mike Pence, however, she represents the power behind the throne. Even though candidate Harris clashed personally and politically with Biden, somehow she is really pulling the strings.
“As you all know, Joe Biden and the Democratic party have been overtaken by the radical left,” Pence said at a Trump campaign event in Arizona on Tuesday. “So given their promises of higher taxes, open borders, socialized medicine and abortion on demand, it’s no surprise that he chose Senator Harris.”
But it is, in fact, a surprise that Biden chose Harris. The conventional wisdom was that Harris was too ambitious; that her attacks were too personal in the primaries; that Biden was too concerned about internal rivalries to pick the California senator.
Surely there were safer picks than the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, who went to high school in Canada and graduated from Howard University?
There surely were governors and senators who could have faced a smaller tsunami of disinformation, conspiracy theories and plain old racism on a social media feed near you.
During the endless pre-game analysis of Biden’s decision, it was often said that he needed to find his own Biden. Like Obama in the Great Recession, Biden needed a partner in the White House, ready to do the work that the boss will be too busy to handle.
But Biden didn’t choose another Biden. He chose another Obama: someone who represents the future of a country of immigrants, with deep roots in the hard work of righting America’s wrongs.
Biden and his team have suggested he’s a transitional figure in Democratic politics, and that’s sensible for someone who could well be sworn in as president at the age of 78.
To be sure, Harris struggled with that transition in her own presidential campaign: was she a former prosecutor or a Bernie Sanders-style supporter of Medicare for All?
After four years as vice-president, we still may not know the answer to the question of whether Harris is a centrist or not. But in less than three months, we will know the answer to the question of what future American voters want for themselves and their country.