The vice presidential debate between Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Vice President Mike Pence was more traditional and less raucous than last week’s debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. That debate was a three-way interruption fest marked by Biden losing track of his thoughts and Trump clumsily returning to slights that had occurred 25 minutes earlier.
This debate was less exciting, a reminder of what politics was like before Trump came onto the scene. Still, it had its moments that bolstered each campaign’s strongest arguments. For Pence, that meant a frequent recursion to first principles and first-term successes. For Harris, that meant a focus on coronavirus and negative descriptions of the Republican Party and its president.
Here are a few quick takeaways on how it went down.
1. Pence’s Superpower Is Debating
Mike Pence, a former congressman and talk radio host, started off strong and just kept getting stronger. He clearly came prepared for the debate. He had a ready recall of facts and figures to bolster his points. He nailed the questions he wanted to answer and deflected on the questions he preferred not to answer.
While he let several zingers fly, he stayed calm and steady, pushing back at what he perceived as unduly false statements but without the constant interruptions of the Trump-Biden debate. He spoke slowly and left few cards on the table unplayed. He was nice, firm, decent, and likable.
Pence’s weakest points were when he was on defense about the global pandemic gripping the country. However, he came into the debate prepared to lay out how a Trump-Pence vision for America is better than the one put forth by Biden and Harris and he accomplished that consistently throughout the debate.
He made a strong case for Trump’s foreign policy being effective and Biden’s being decades of failure. He had Kamala Harris on the ropes about whether she and Biden would raise taxes on Americans on their first day in office. He effectively showed the country her refusal to openly support court packing, a position she previously supported.
2. Harris’s Superpower Is Something Other Than Debating
The conventional wisdom heading into the debate was that Harris, a former prosecutor, would obliterate the nice and meek Pence. It was never clear why that conventional wisdom formed, considering she performed poorly in the Democratic primary debates. She left that contest before the Iowa caucuses and her only clear win was when she accused her now running mate Joe Biden of being a virulent racist. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii put the California senator on the ropes for her criminal justice record.
Having said that, Harris had a very strong start to the VP debate, with a rehearsed but very effective answer about the Trump administration’s failures to handle the coronavirus epidemic the way she and Biden would. Pressed for details on what she’d do differently, she began to struggle and never quite regained a strong footing.
Both candidates declined to answer questions, usually effectively. But her refusal to answer repeated questions about whether she and her running mate plan to pack the Supreme Court in retaliation for Republicans appointing a new justice in a constitutional manner was uncomfortable.
She also lied frequently, and perhaps in ways that were too easily caught. She lied about Abraham Lincoln, she repeated the completely false Charlottesville hoax, and she falsely claimed Trump called COVID a hoax. She tried to defend Biden on fracking but did so in a way that reminded voters of how he’s been all over the map on whether he zealously seeks to ban fracking or definitely does not want to.
She feigned outrage when Pence said he hoped Democrats wouldn’t engage in religious attacks on Amy Coney Barrett, as they have already done. But Harris herself tried to impose a religious test on a nominee for being a member of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic lay group.
3. Yes, VP Debates Matter
As soon as the debate was over and everyone knew that Pence did well, all the pundits said it didn’t matter because vice presidential debates “don’t matter.” While it’s true that the vice presidential slot isn’t the most important thing on people’s minds in a presidential election, these debates frequently matter.
One of the undervalued contributors to Trump’s stunning 2016 victory was the masterful performance Pence had in his debate against Hillary Clinton running mate Tim Kaine, who was admittedly a bit of a disaster. In that debate, which was focused on, what else, the bad orange man, Pence explained why Republican voters supported him, forcing a debate on policy and away from the personality questions that so riled journalists.
I saw someone on Twitter describe Pence as the yin to Trump’s yang and there is a truth in that. Many pundits have never understood how the traditional Republican voter could ever vote for Trump, much less be so unfailingly loyal to him. Pence is the embodiment of the answer to that question. He articulates a Trump-supporting traditional Republicanism that many voters hold. And it’s a compelling and persuasive answer for millions of people purposely ignored by media coverage and its discussions of the 2020 election.
4. Debate Or Parallel Interviews
Nancy Pelosi biographer Susan Page moderated the debate. Liberal commentators accused Pence of speaking too long and Page certainly kept cutting him off, but Rick Klein of ABC News said that Pence spoke for 35:22 relative to Harris’ time of 38:48. CNN claimed the two spoke about the same amount of time.
Billed as a debate, the evening was more a parallel interview of each candidate. Americans might be better served by witnessing an actual debate between candidates.
That is particularly true in an environment where the media are functionally running the Biden campaign and refusing to ask questions that the Trump campaign would like to see asked. Harris was asked about whether she and Biden plan to pack the court, but only because Pence pressed her on the issue.
It was Pence who brought up Biden’s involvement in the false and damaging Russia collusion hoax that the country was put through over the last several years. Pence raised the issue of impeachment — one of Democrats’ only legislative accomplishments this Congress, albeit one that clearly backfired.
Nevertheless, the range of topics was fairly good.
5. Biased Questions
One of the problems with the media being so uniformly in support of the Democratic Party and its goals is that nearly all the questions posed in debates are loaded with false assumptions. The first question to Pence, for instance, was that the U.S. death toll was worse than “almost” any other “wealthy” country on earth. The U.S. case fatality rate of 2.8 percent is below Italy, United Kingdom, Belgium, Sweden, Canada, France, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and Germany, something that the media rarely mention.
When Page asked Harris about whether she’d take a vaccine, she neglected to mention that Harris had made anti-vaccination remarks weeks ago.
Page couched a discussion of the economy in a claim that the economy is not recovering. “Vice President Pence, your administration has been predicting a rapid and robust recovery, but the latest economic report suggests that’s not happening.” In fact, the latest estimate from the Atlanta Federal Reserve is that third-quarter GDP growth will be more than 35 percent, the largest in history.
“Do you believe that climate change poses an existential threat?” was the general tenor of the questions. She highlighted that “President Trump” blames China for the coronavirus, as if it’s in dispute that the coronavirus came from and was mishandled by China. Instead of asking Harris for her support of abortion through all nine months of pregnancy, and for suing nuns to force them to pay for abortions, Page went with a far friendlier “Would you want your home state to enact no restrictions on access to abortion?”
Page didn’t ask Harris about supporting a bail-out fund for rioters.
Most egregiously, a question about peaceful transfer of power was posed as if this was a concern for Trump, even though it is the Resistance who, by definition, have fought the 2016 election’s legitimacy for nearly four years now.
Pence was asked tough questions about things Trump has said or done. That is appropriate and good. It is also appropriate and necessary for Biden and Harris to be asked tough questions about their views. That is where the media have completely abdicated responsibility in favor of their preferred 2020 approach of campaign advocacy.
As Ari Fleischer wrote, “Page asked Qs re some of Pres. Trump’s most controversial statements. Fair enough. But she didn’t ask about Biden’s you ain’t black statement; blacks aren’t diverse; getting arrested in So. Africa; flip-flopping on fracking; packing the court or Harris comparing ICE to the KKK.”
6. Smug Alert
One of the most surprising things about last night’s debate was how Harris struggled to keep cool, particularly at the beginning. A split screen showed both candidates for much of the debate. Even when a huge fly landed on Pence’s mane, to the distraction of many, he kept the same calm demeanor.
Harris bobbed her head, shook her head, laughed oddly, sneered, and generally exuded smug vibes. Controlling facial expressions on television is difficult, but it’s important for the medium.
The campaign appeared to try to explain her debate defeat by claiming that Pence had “mansplained” to her, a weak retort under the best of circumstances. But following a debate where everyone witnessed how condescending and smug Harris came off, particularly without merit, it was an explanation that failed to land outside of media echo chambers.
Pence is a deceptively strong debater who would have been tough to beat even on a good night, but Harris’ comparatively weaker substance combined with a frankly awful style did not help her out.
7. No Need to Blame Poor Performances On Sexism
Following the debate, many of the media hosts who serve as Biden/Harris surrogates started saying, without evidence, that Pence had “mansplained” to Harris or that women are held to different standards than men on the debate stage, or that criticism of her smugness was sexist.
In fact, it’s fine for observers to critique both male and female debaters, particularly when those debaters are running for the top offices in the land. While women are sometimes judged on a likability scale that can seem inscrutable, no one can claim that Trump is not judged for his likability. Some might even note that it’s the number one obsession for most media types.
Not everyone is a great debater. Most people aren’t, in fact. Pence is very good. Harris is a bit overbearing. Some people love it and it rubs a lot of other people the wrong way. Such is life. It’s something Trump deals with, too.
Harris could improve her performance by lowering the temperature on her condescension and developing more substance behind her brashness.
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