Democrats Want Harris to 'Prosecute the Case' Against Pence, But Warn He's an 'Incredible' Debater

The vice presidential debate is typically unremarkable, as evidenced by how difficult it would be for most Americans to remember one single moment from the 2016 debate between Mike Pence and Tim Kaine, or Joe Biden and Paul Ryan in 2012, or even Joe Biden and Sarah Palin in 2008.

But this year it matters.

In the wake of the staggering news that President Donald Trump, 74, was hospitalized after contracting the coronavirus that has killed 200,000 Americans, and with the knowledge that his opponent Joe Biden is 77, voters will be watching Wednesday to see the leadership, substance, and style of two people who could one day serve as president.

It's impossible to pinpoint when it began, but Democrats have been licking their chops for a long time over the idea that Senator Kamala Harris could take on one of the heads of the Trump administration in a debate. When she ran for president, the hope was of her facing Trump. But as she shot to the top of Biden's VP shortlist, Democrats repeatedly invoked one phrase—"prosecuting the case," against Pence and the Trump administration.

While the belief on the left is that there is a target-rich environment against Pence, it begins and ends with COVID-19. The president now has the deadly virus that he has downplayed from its onset, which puts a new spotlight on how the administration has handled the disease while large parts of the economy remain closed.

"The president has COVID and the White House is literally a COVID hotspot," Cornell Belcher, Barack Obama's former pollster, told Newsweek. "It's kind of hard not to go there and unpack that as really symbolic of failures more broadly."

Beyond that opening salvo, however, Democrats warned that Vice President Mike Pence's skill as a debater should be taken seriously.

"Oh, he's an incredible debater," said Emmy Ruiz, a former Harris senior advisor during her presidential run.

The 2016 debate against Kaine displayed the ways Pence approaches issues like race and policing that have only grown in significance during the 2020 cycle and after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota led to national Black Lives Matter protests.

When the issue of implicit bias and racism among police came up during the debate, Pence invoked his uncle, a former Chicago cop, whom he called his "hero" growing up. Officers, he said, hear the "bad mouthing that comes from people that seize upon tragedy in the wake of police action shootings" as a way to use a "broad brush" to accuse law enforcement of implicit bias or "institutional racism."

"And that really has got to stop," Pence said.

Trump sought to pummel Biden during their debate last week with attacks about socialism tying him to those in the Democratic Party more to the left of him. Pence is no stranger to similar language, and his tone regarding race and policing has sharpened since 2016.

During a speech to the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5 in July, weeks after the Floyd killing, Pence remarked somberly that "the radical left is trying to smear police officers."

"One of the most frustrating parts of that [2016 vice presidential] debate was the strategic decision to rattle him and make him defend the indefensible positions of Trump," said a former Clinton staffer, adding that it was "hard to pin him down" as Pence deflected and denied Trump statements and positions, before moving on.

Former Georgia congressman Jack Kingston, who served with Pence and worked closely with him, said the debate should feature less interruption than the presidential debate.

"Pence is going to say, 'Here is what we are doing to bring racial justice and racial equality," Kingston said, "but by the way, why didn't Biden do anything on race for eight years as Vice President or for 47 years in politics?'"

While Democrats acknowledge and fret that a woman on the attack in politics registers far differently than a man doing the same thing, they say Harris will revisit Trump's stumbles on condemning white supremacy and a perplexing decision to tell white supremacist Proud Boys to "stand back and standby," rather than to stand down and not engage in violence.

"I hope Kamala gets a better answer on a clear call to stand down on violence from Pence," the former Clinton staffer said.

Political observers on both sides said any discussion of violence from white supremacists will lead Pence to ask Harris to denounce Antifa and tell them to stand down as well, despite Biden during the first debate citing the FBI director calling Antifa an ideology, not a group.

But Kingston said it's important to note that Harris herself is also not a novice debater, because of her background as former California Attorney General and because "you don't get to the U.S. Senate without debating."

"She's somewhat capable of doing the same thing I want Pence to do in terms of making the case," he added. "Voters who left the first debate looking for more information are going to have a treasure trove in this one."

But despite Biden and Harris repeatedly saying they do not support calls to "defund the police," including at the debate last week, Republicans say it will come up.

"The association with people in the party that want to defund the police is there," Kingston said.

The debate will reveal how Harris's prosecutor-questioning style—made famous in viral videos of her pressing Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court, as well as of Bill Barr and his predecessor Jeff Sessions—works during a debate against Mike Pence, another Trump administration figure Democrats hold in low regard.

But Democrats have high hopes for the first Black woman vice-presidential nominee, one who showed she wasn't afraid to go at opponents during the primary, including Joe Biden.

"I think what Democratic base voters were looking for was a prosecutor, because they don't want a debate with Pence, they want a trial," said Albert Morales, senior political director for polling firm Latino Decisions. "A trial for their abuse of power, their cronyism, and their failure of leadership. And I can't think of a person that best fits that mold to take apart Mike Pence's dereliction of duty as vice president than Harris."

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Left: Eric Baradat/AFP. Right: Drew Angerer/Getty Getty