Tim Kaine on What It’s Like to Debate Mike Pence

Four years ago, when Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia faced off against Mike Pence at the vice-presidential debate, the encounter put two drastically different debate styles on display: Mr. Pence came across as mild-mannered and more formal while Mr. Kaine, a litigator by training, was more of an attack dog, with a tendency to interrupt and talk over Mr. Pence. Even as Mr. Pence made little effort to directly rebut attacks against Donald Trump, Mr. Kaine tried at nearly every turn to offer praise for his running mate, Hillary Clinton.

Ahead of this year’s vice-presidential debate on Wednesday between Senator Kamala Harris of California and Mr. Pence, The New York Times spoke to Mr. Kaine about what Ms. Harris should expect, how the news of Mr. Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis might affect the vice president and whether Mr. Kaine is offering Ms. Harris any advice.

The following is an edited and condensed version of the conversation, which was conducted on Friday, after Mr. Trump announced he had tested positive for the coronavirus but before he was hospitalized.

How does Senator Harris prepare for a debate now in this environment, with the news that President Trump has tested positive for the coronavirus?

Does it make the debate more important? Does it make the debate less important because people won’t be thinking about the vice-presidential debate? It’s hard to say.

The 2016 debate, there was no incumbent. So both tickets were basically Hillary and Donald Trump wanting to be president and each ticket making the case, “If we succeed, here’s what we want to do, here’s why you should elect us.”

When you have an incumbent, the debate is heavily about, “OK, well, you had a chance, what did you do?” It’s the Ronald Reagan question of Jimmy Carter in 1980, where he looks the American public in the face: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

So that makes this debate different — both the presidential and vice-presidential debates. It’s not just about, ‘Well, here’s what we’re going to do.’ The Trump-Pence administration has a record. And one of the most top-of-mind pieces of the record is 210,000 people dead and millions having lost their jobs under the Trump administration. And he [Trump] asked Mike Pence on Feb. 26: “Be the head of our coronavirus task force. Lead this effort for the United States.” I would venture to say that that role is the most important role that Pence has ever had in his life, even more than the title of vice president.

So Trump, and the administration more generally, having downplayed this — “it’s a hoax, it’s going to go away soon, we have it under control, any American can get a test” — undercutting scientists like Dr. Fauci over and over and over again, the catastrophic failure of the United States relative to other nations and dealing with both the health crisis and then the economic devastation that resulted from it, that is really square. And it was squarely on the table in the presidential debate, and it’s going to be squarely on the table in the vice-presidential debate because it’s top of mind for everybody, because Pence was asked to assume a leadership role. And now because the president, who undermined all the science all the way along and said it was a hoax or wasn’t a big problem, has now been diagnosed.

What is it like debating Mr. Pence? What advice are you going to give to Senator Harris?

I’ll answer the first question, not the second one because we’re in conversation about advice, but why would I make that public?

Pence is a professional communicator. He was a radio talk show host before he was in politics, so he can deliver a line. And, I think it’s frustrating when you’re onstage with somebody who’s delivering a line that’s false. But he does it — he can do it very, very well.

Now, Kamala’s good. She’s a prosecutor, and she has evidence to argue. When she was in court back in the day, she would have to argue the evidence. She’s got a lot of evidence to argue. But the vice president is a trained communicator who can look in a camera and basically say anything, even if it’s contrary to the facts, and say it as if he believes it.

I know you aren’t going to discuss the advice you are giving, but has Senator Harris called you for advice or have you spoken about ——

Yes.

Multiple times? Or how often?

We have communicated — and I’ll just use that phrase more broadly — communicated one-on-one. And our staffs have talked a number of times, and we’re not done.

Given that, as you said, Pence is a professional communicator, does this kind of huge news — in your experience — does he get rattled by it? Is he going to stay the course? What do you think this does for him?

My prediction is — he has done nothing but be a wonderful salesman for Donald Trump and then talk about how great Donald Trump is going to be; he’s going to do that same thing. At the debate, he will be praising his boss over and over again. He stands next to Donald Trump and smiles and nods and talks about how fantastic he is, and he’ll do that at the debate. The challenge for him is, how can you do that without it going in a completely discordant way with Americans who are suffering?

One more question and this one is not about the debate. What do you think Joe Biden and the campaign should do at this point, in terms of their schedule? How do you campaign in this environment?

They need to do what they’ve already done, which is be smart about being safe, keeping their staff safe and keeping voters safe. But they also need to be aggressive in getting around the country, following good safety rules. And I suspect that they’re going to do that.

This is not a hiatus of the campaign. No. We’re in the closing stretch of the campaign, and they’ve got to be aggressively campaigning. But the good news is, they will only do it in a way that is mindful of their own safety and the safety of everybody around them.