After the unpleasant spectacle of Trump spewing toxic bile at Biden and the American public, yesterday’s vice presidential debate was almost staid—almost, but not quite.
For Mike Pence tried to get away with a less off-the-wall, less high-decibel version of Trump’s performance.
With the soberest of miens (despite the destined-to-go-viral fly that sat on his head for an ungodly amount of time), Pence put forward one untruth after another: He claimed that Trump had only the public’s well-being in mind every step of the Covid-fiasco way; that Trump was an environmentalist who always listened to the science; that America was stronger and more respected for having abandoned major international agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords. But more telling than what he said was how he said it: He tried, time and again, to talk over Harris, to intimidate her into silence.
It didn’t work. Pence is no Donald Trump when it comes to the ability to bulldoze anyone and everyone on a debate stage. I don’t like his politics, but, to be fair, he’s not remotely in the same league as Trump when it comes to vengeful, noisy narcissism.
Harris knew exactly how to handle the vice president’s half-hearted efforts to talk over her. She simply refused to play along and go on the defensive, and she wouldn’t shrink back into herself. The senator from California looked at him, smiled a deliberately icy smile, and demanded that he shut up so that she could speak. Time and again, he tried to outtalk her; time and again, Harris refused to give ground. “Mister Vice President, I’m speaking,” she said at one point. “If you don’t mind letting me finish, we can then have a conversation.” Another time, she just looked at him, as if he were a rude child, and said softly but emphatically, “Mister Vice President, I’m speaking. I’m speaking,” and then shook her head at him in a mixture of pity and sorrow, as if he needed admonishing for his lack of manners.
There are advantages to having been a prosecutor. Harris knows how to remain in the spotlight, how to dictate the terms of a debate, and how to frame an argument in a way that’s easily accessible to an audience. When Pence accused her and Biden of not being transparent on policy issues, she laughed dismissively, and then quickly pivoted to Trump’s taxes, and the fact that he paid a mere $750 in federal income taxes (in both 2016 and 2017).
When Pence said that Trump was a great environmentalist and that he was “going to continue to listen to the science,” but then went on to hedge about whether human activity was responsible for climate change, Harris’s face conveyed all the incredulity that millions of viewers must have felt hearing that preposterous statement. She didn’t need to remind viewers that Pence was actually talking about a science skeptic, a highly contagious Covid patient who deliberately flouted public health recommendations by ostentatiously removing his mask as soon as he returned to the White House from the hospital. Instead, in her prosecutorial response, she just clinically detailed Trump’s inactivity—and, worse, his maliciousness—in the face of both Covid and climate change, which she noted is an “existential threat” to humanity.
All that said, Harris’s performance wasn’t flawless. I would have liked her to lay out an indictment against the entire Trump team for their sadistic acts against immigrants; I’d have liked her to use her legal skills to dissect Trump’s lawless executive orders, to denounce the irrationality of Trump’s tweetstorms, to explain just how criminal were the acts that led to Trump’s impeachment.
But, clearly, Harris’s job Wednesday night was to do no harm, to make sure that Biden’s candidacy remained in as strong a position after the debate as it was going into the debate. And by that measure, in her caution she succeeded admirably.
Pence, by contrast, had to do more than simply rise above the astonishingly low bar set by Trump last week. He had to do more than just come off as not frothing-at-the-mouth rabid. True, over the 90-minute debate he managed to lay out policies without accusing his opponent of being stupid, or praising his own perceived smartness to the rafters, or insulting Senator Harris’s relatives. But he didn’t do much to counter the widespread impression that those policies, even if articulated in a more sober manner, still don’t pass the smell test.
Moreover, Pence shamefully punted on two key questions: First, he refused to say whether he’d discussed with an ailing Trump the circumstances in which the VP would temporarily assume presidential powers, despite the fact that a medicated Trump had spent the past 36 hours sending out dozens of manic, at times incoherent, tweets. And then he dodged the question about whether he disagreed with Trump regarding giving out guarantees for a peaceful transfer of power should the Trump-Pence ticket lose.
For a nation already on edge, that was the wrong way to answer what should have been softball questions.