The VP debate is traditionally a lacklustre affair.
The role of a VP is not to screw things up, so the contest pits two challengers locked in a delicate competition to play it the safest. VP debaters generally speak slowly and carefully to avoid potential gaffes. They tend to bypass controversial topics, and refuse to take positions that might appear to conflict with their boss.
2020 is not a normal election though. Trump and Biden are old men with obvious health concerns. They are locked in a do-or-die ideological battle for the soul of America. Few elections have mattered in the same way that 2020 matters. As such, this VP debate was must-see television.
Mike Pence generally presents as a bland, robotic, trustworthy, bank manager type of politician. His perfect white hair and clean-cut appearance also give him a strangely super-hero feel. Super Bank Manager, writing mortgages with the speed of light. File that thought, might be a comic book deal in the waiting. Pence showed up looking steely and determined and was in no mood to be pushed around by either Harris or the moderator. He advocated the Trump agenda with well-calibrated vigour. He was respectful of Harris in a way that Trump was not of Biden, and the proceedings were devoid of the chaos of the Trump/Biden clash.
Pence worked hard to highlight divisions between Biden and Harris on the Green New Deal and flip-flopped positions such as fracking and fossil fuel use. He also managed to tie Harris in knots on the Democratic position on the Supreme Court. Biden/Harris are playing very coy on whether they would add judges to this body, expanding its traditional nine members to get more liberal decision-makers on the bench. This is an issue with potentially catastrophic outcomes for the separation of powers. The Democrats could conceivably redraw the electoral system so that they never lose power again, and liberal judges would allow it to stand.
Pence also attacked the mainstream media for the selective editing that has given rise to numerous disinformation campaigns about what Trump has said. The Fine People Hoax is a constant of the Biden campaign, despite its patent falsehood. A brief examination of the transcript rebuts it entirely.
Pence had an unfortunate two minute period during which a fly landed on his head, and he did not swat it. The insect became an instant viral sensation. Pence was evasive of several of the tough questions, but this seemed largely because he was unfinished on a previous point and needed to double back to conclude his narrative.
Harris went into the debate as a less known quantity. She had slapped Biden around during one of the early Democratic debates but has been strictly off limits to any serious questioning since accepting the VP nomination. Harris brings several handicaps to her public appearances, namely her voice, which often sounds like she’s on the verge of tears, and her laugh, which can sound a little detached when given full throttle. During this debate her laugh was absent, but she did appear to deliberately add emotion to her voice when it might have helped advance an argument. The crying voice does appear to be an act, but her coaches would be advised to suggest Harris use it sparingly.
Harris might also be advised not to lean too heavily on her record as a public prosecutor, which paints a picture of disproportionate incarceration of black Americans for petty offences. Her career also includes an unwillingness to overturn unjust convictions, leaving the innocent to languish in prison for needlessly wasted years.
Her acting coach needs to be commended though. Harris delivered faux outrage, faux consternation, and faux warmth like a Hollywood veteran. She might need to dial back slightly on the condescension. That Californian smugness doesn’t play too well in rural states.
CNN quickly scored the debate in favour of Harris, but the poll numbers may have been prepared in advance, like a pre-cooked cake on your favourite lifestyle channel. More credible outlets scored it for Pence.
The Trump team seems a tighter unit than the Democratic union, partly because there were no bruising Republican primaries. Given the age and health of Biden, and the unlikely chances of him completing even one term, Democrats are essentially voting for Harris at the top of the ticket.
Pence seems very comfortable in his role as Trump back-up. Regardless of the November outcome, Pence will surely be recorded as a safe pair of hands who ably supported the unpredictable 45th president. Trump’s bout of coronavirus elevated him very close to the seat of power, but that may be as near as he gets, and he would appear satisfied with that outcome. The future of Harris is unwritten and could go in dozens of potential directions. Her star is rising as Biden’s flickers and emits an increasingly low wattage.
The next presidential debate is supposed to occur in just a week. If it proceeds, that will prove a very telling encounter.
G G Novack – Political Flycatcher