Harris vs Pence: Thoughts on the 2020 VP debate

Most Democrats’ objections to the Trump presidency have very little to do with Mike Pence. They may not like him or agree with him, but he doesn’t stir the vehement, enraged, all-consuming opposition in them that Donald Trump does.

Most Republicans’ objections to the prospect of a Biden presidency have a lot to do with Kamala Harris. Many Republicans either think Biden won’t stand up to progressives in his party like Harris, or he’ll be a figurehead while progressives such as Harris make the real decisions behind the scenes, or that Joe Biden simply won’t be around for long and Harris will become the 47th president.

Vice President Pence could say just about anything — the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody — and make it sound calming, even-tempered, and like plainspoken Midwestern common sense. For the first 45 minutes, when Pence ran over time, he just sounded like he has one half of a sentence to finish, and sounds so reasonable as he grabs an extra twenty seconds or so. But he went to that well a little too often as the night wore on.

But overall, Pence was remarkably effective, and he does it in a way that seems to lull his opponents into underestimating him. When Pence makes an attack, it either comes across as a gentle jab — “it sounds like plagiarism,” — or he makes it sound like a compliment while subtly reminding the audience of his opponent’s flaws — “I salute Joe Biden’s 47 years in public service.”

Harris was herself, with her now-familiar deliberate, polished, theatrical TNT-legal-drama-star persona that has never been my cup of tea. If you liked her before, you probably loved her tonight. If you didn’t like her before, you probably loathed her tonight. During the presidential primary, Harris garnered plenty of rave reviews from the mainstream media for her debate performances, but . . . those debate performances never turned into much support in the polls beyond an early surge. There’s always been a gap between how much the press loves Harris and how much the electorate at large loves Harris.

Both vice-presidential candidates left some major weapons little-used until the end: Harris focused heavily on attacking Donald Trump for standard Republican policies (the Iran Deal, tax cuts, Roe v. Wade), rather than for Trump’s defects as a leader; Pence laid off Harris’s own awful record. On both counts, the gloves finally came off late in the game. Harris drew some blood early in the exchanges on the coronavirus, but otherwise, it went downhill fast for her. This was a very good debate for Mike Pence and did not reflect well on Harris. Watching Pence, it was easy to wish he was the one at the top of the ticket. I very much doubt many viewers felt the same way watching Harris. Even the fly that landed on Pence’s head during the debate seemed happier on his side.

There were far fewer interruptions, although the candidates did butt in on each other several times, and Harris in particular was noticeably touchy about this (amusingly for Harris, who in the Senate Judiciary Committee made a name for herself interrupting Jeff Sessions at a hearing fifteen times and was finally asked to let the witness answer a question). Moderator Susan Page loudly emphasized early that the candidates should not interrupt. Pence did manage, repeatedly, to keep talking after his time was up simply by continuing in his usual calm tone. On several occasions he answered a prior question instead of the one posed, then went back in his next answer to the question. His speaking style is very deliberate, and will not be rushed. Pence did muff one line when he dropped a zinger about how Joe Biden should know plagiarism; many Americans may not know that Biden’s first presidential campaign immolated over his fabulism in appropriating another man’s life stories, and Pence never bothered to go back to it. Both candidates conspicuously avoided answering questions about the health of the presidential candidates or their plans in case the president became incapacitated.

Pence’s problem, of course, is that he has to defend Trump as if Trump is a normal Republican like himself. That was toughest in dealing with Harris’s charges on the virus, which Pence mostly ignored, but he caught her up for trying to pretend that her statements talking down the safety of a vaccine were just for a vaccine only approved by Trump — when, of course, no vaccine will be produced without the involvement of scores of scientists and the FDA. And Harris seemed completely unprepared when Pence uncorked a prepared line of attack on the Obama Administration’s 2009 response to the swine flu.

Once the debate moved out of the first section and into comfortable Republican ground — economic plans, national security, the courts — Pence was on his strongest turf. Harris ran away from Biden’s — and her own — statements and proposals repeatedly, which is consistent with the Biden-Harris campaign’s pattern of fleeing any discussion of what it actually intends to do if elected. She said Biden would repeal the Trump tax cuts, then backtracked hastily to deny that Biden would raise taxes on anyone making above $400,000 — both can’t be true. She denied any intent to ban fracking, when Biden has said so on the trail and she has endorsed proposals to do so. Pence had the upper hand because he told people to go look at what is actually in the plans on their website and in specific things Harris has voted for or sponsored. On the whole, Harris spent almost the entire discussion of domestic policy running away from the Biden-Harris proposals in general and the most progressive parts of it in particular. It is clear which campaign wants to talk about the Green New Deal, and which does not.

On the other hand, both vice-presidential candidates had to run from their own records — Harris away from her time as a hardline prosecutor in order to paint herself as a law enforcement reformer, Pence from his former stance as an ardent free trader when he was a Congressman. His broadsides against Biden’s support for NAFTA and China trade would have rung hollower if contrasted with how Pence himself once spoke and voted on trade.

On foreign affairs, Harris played to the weakest of Democratic arguments — Trump is too unilateral, foreigners prefer the Chinese dictator to our president, pulling out of the Iran Deal was bad, killing Soleimani brought retaliation, all the John Kerry hits. She had nothing to say when Pence bore down on Biden for opposing the raid that got Osama bin Laden, which is ground the Biden campaign can only ignore.

Harris claimed that Abraham Lincoln refused to nominate a candidate for Chief Justice in October 1864 because “Honest Abe said, it’s not the right thing to do” and wanted the people to vote first.

Lincoln, of course, said no such thing. He sent no nominee to the Senate in October 1864 because the Senate was out of session until December. He sent a nominee the day after the session began, and Salmon P. Chase was confirmed the same day. And Lincoln wanted to dangle the nomination before Chase and several other potential candidates because he wanted them to campaign for him. Lincoln’s priority was winning the election, which was necessary to win the war — and he filled the vacancy at the first possible instant.

Harris is simply inventing history.

More broadly, no viewer could have missed the point, which Pence hit multiple times and Harris refused to answer, about the Democrats expanding the Supreme Court. The two sides drew some predictable lines on policing, but that left Pence to reprise the Tulsi Gabbard attack lines on Harris’s record as a prosecutor, the lines that sank Harris’s presidential campaign. She was not much better prepared for them the second time around, and had to keep insisting that she would not be lectured by Mike Pence.

Wednesday night saw a standard, high-level political debate. Neither candidate scored a knock-out. Neither committed a career-defining gaffe.

The end result, then, is likely to be negligible in a race defined by big issues, including the pandemic, the economy and Trump’s tumultuous character.

Democrats benefit from the shape of the race remaining unchanged. 

But in a year where every precedent and expectation has been shattered, who knows what could come next?

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