Column: Mike Pence is a master of Midwestern nice. Here’s why it could trip up Kamala Harris


Like a lot of people, I want to believe that Kamala Harris will rhetorically dismantle and mop the floor with Mike Pence when they meet in Salt Lake City on Wednesday for the first and only vice presidential debate.

It should be easy for the California senator, right? After all, Pence is a feckless politician who, even as head of the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force, is holding campaign rallies despite his possible exposure to COVID-19 from President Trump and others working at the White House.

On Monday, the vice president’s staff went so far as to mock a decision by the Commission on Presidential Debates to erect plexiglass between the candidates to reduce the risk of transmitting the airborne virus. On Tuesday, he objected to it outright.


“If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it,” Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller told Politico.

Harris, on the other hand, is a career prosecutor known for her withering stare and her ability to reduce self-important white men to stammering, blubbering messes. Remember Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing for the U.S. Supreme Court?

“Can you think of any laws that give government the power to make decisions about the male body?” Harris interrogated.

Kavanaugh paused and blinked. “I’m happy to answer a more specific question.”

“Male versus female,” Harris responded.

As entertaining as this exchange was to watch, I’ve interviewed Mike Pence enough times during my time in Indianapolis to know that a similar strategy isn’t going to work with him during a debate.

Hence, there is a reason why, for the last couple of weeks, Harris and her allies have been trying, ever so subtly, to lower voters’ expectations for any sort of “Mortal Kombat” moves in Salt Lake City. Unlike Kavanaugh, Pence traffics in Midwestern nice — which is not to be confused with being a genuinely nice person who consistently puts the well-being of others first.

For the uninitiated, Midwestern nice is the veneer of kindness, buttressed by the use of an infuriatingly calm tone, no matter the topic of discussion, combined with more than a little passive aggressiveness. Experienced practitioners use it to appear high-minded and avoid direct confrontation, while also somehow making others look like idiots.


The overall effect is bewildering, blurring the line between truth and fiction. Take, for example, this hard-to-refute description of Pence from one of his longtime allies, Mayor James Brainard of the Indiana city of Carmel.

“He treats people who have different opinions with respect,” Brainard said. “He talks about ideas. He doesn’t stoop to the level of ridiculing people whose views he disagrees with. He’s a gentleman.”

The last Democratic nominee for vice president, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, fell into the Midwestern-nice trap during the debate in 2016. His repeated attempts to go on the attack and interrupt Pence made the senator look crazed and weirdly aggressive, and the future vice president look like the model of calm and civility.

Vice President Mike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence, head of the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force, discusses COVID-19 testing during a news conference in the White House Rose Garden on Sept. 28.
(Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)

So, how does one defeat Midwestern nice?

“She’d be well advised not to make it personal,” Brainard said. “Pence will talk about what he believes and how he wants to conduct himself in office, and in the issues that he believes are important for the country. He’s not going to personalize it and if she does so, she’s not going to come off well.”

As it turns out, many Hoosiers — especially those in the city of Indianapolis, where Pence lived while serving as governor before Trump tapped him as a running mate — have been stewing about Pence and how to defeat his Midwestern niceness for a long time.


Hatred for Pence runs deep here. So deep that, as of this week, almost every home within a mile of the Indiana Governor’s Mansion, tucked away in a neighborhood long known for old money and Republicans, has a “Biden Harris 2020” campaign sign mounted in the front yard. So deep that people I’ve known for years, those who are soft-spoken, genuinely nice — and sometimes Midwestern nice — and attend church every Sunday, can fly into a near-apoplectic rage at the very mention of the vice president’s name.

As someone who lived in Indiana through his time in office, I understand. The way he used religion to justify discrimination against pretty much everyone in the state who wasn’t straight, white and male was just too much.

Now, after four years of him being vice president, Indianapolis residents don’t want Harris to merely win the debate on Wednesday. They want her to “rip him apart,” “beat the brakes off of him,” “call him out on his bulls—” and point out “the hypocrisy of his so-called Christian niceties.”

So they had some advice for her.

Be genuine, they said. Pence has a difficult time coming across as genuine.

Others urged her to pepper the vice president with questions about how he has abandoned his values as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican,” as he used to say, in favor of fealty to Trump. And given the events of the last few weeks, including ordering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to use its emergency powers to seal U.S. borders, this seems like fertile territory indeed.

Some said to ask simple questions like: Why do you support a racist? Then just wait for the answer. Or just press him on positions like the prosecutor that she was for so many years. Being mean doesn’t have to be a part of that.

Another option is for Harris to show the rest of the world what Hoosiers already know: That his strong Christian values don’t include Black and Brown lives or the LGBTQ community.


And more than a few suggested that Pence just being silent on stage with a woman who isn’t his wife — plexiglass or not — will be enough to make him crack.

Now that would be Midwestern nice.