Reflections on the Vice Presidential Debate

In Wednesday night’s Vice Presidential debate, I would submit that U.S. CA Sen. Kamala Harris did very well – by maintaining her poise, looking at the camera, and not trying to do too much.  She left some opportunities on the table, but was seemingly cognizant (in my view, wisely) that her main assignment was “do no harm.”  The evening appears likely to have little effect on the polls, and if such is the case, she won.  She effectively wielded a terrific asset that I had frankly forgotten she possessed, despite commenting on it in the earliest days of her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination:  the best smile I’ve seen in politics since President Jimmy Carter’s run in 1976.  Although she initially muffed her description of Vice President Joe Biden’s tax plan by not making clear that the plan will not increase income taxes for anyone making under $400,000 a year, she recovered nicely.  She was effective on the consequences of the Administration’s intent to kill the Affordable Care Act.  Michigan remains, at least nominally, a swing state; she was deadly in pointing out that Mr. Biden was pivotal in the passage of the U.S. auto industry relief package during the Great Recession, while her adversary, Vice President Mike Pence, then in Congress, voted against it.  Her foreign policy answer was weak, but she got by.  Most importantly, she looked like she belonged on the stage with Mr. Pence, and that she could assume the presidency if need be.  As Theodore White commented in The Making of the President 1960 about then-untested U.S. MA Sen. John Kennedy’s first debate against the well-known Vice President Richard Nixon:  “There was, first and above all, the crude overwhelming impression that … the two seemed evenly matched – and this even matching in the public imagination was for [the lesser known candidate] a major victory.”  Although anyone that reads these pages is aware that I have doubts that Ms. Harris actually is ready to assume the presidency, I felt while watching the debate that she seems the only one of the four candidates on the two tickets that looks like the future.   

At the same time, I would credit Mr. Pence with doing as well as he could with what he had.  In certain areas, he was the more substantive.  He provided reassurance to those wavering Republicans looking for a reason to stick with Mr. Trump.  That said, his defense of the Trump Administration’s handling of the Coronavirus – positioned as it was at the beginning of the debate, when viewers would have been most closely attending – flew in the face of public experience and perception; he simply looked like the tired Trump apologist he’s been for four years.  He ducked question after question (as did Ms. Harris, although seemingly not as noticeably).  In sharp contrast to Ms. Harris’ smile, I would submit that Mr. Pence’s most notable shortcoming – a mistake that I was surprised that he made, given the terrible reviews President Trump’s boorish debate performance garnered last week – was his overbearing manner.  He regularly interrupted Sen. Harris (she also interrupted him, but again, seemingly not as frequently or egregiously) and repeatedly ran roughshod over Moderator Susan Page’s attempts to have him abide by the debate rules.  I suspect that many women found the Vice President’s performance disrespectful, a suspicion perhaps supported by CNN’s post-debate “Instant Poll,” which found that men considered the debate essentially a tie, while women judged Ms. Harris the victor by 69% – 30% — a terrible impression for Mr. Pence to have left with the largest voter segment, one in which he and Mr. Trump are already significantly trailing.  Surprisingly and ironically, Mr. Pence may have made the same mistake that I consider U.S. VA Sen. Tim Kaine to have made against him during the 2016 Vice Presidential Debate when Mr. Kaine chose to strike a somewhat contentious posture:  devalue his brand as a “nice guy.”

Both left glaring openings that Messrs. Trump and Biden will undoubtedly try to exploit in their next debate (assuming such occurs):  Mr. Pence failed to provide assurances that Mr. Trump will peacefully vacate the White House if Mr. Biden is certified the Electoral College victor, and Ms. Harris completely sidestepped Mr. Pence’s charge that Democrats will try to add seats to the Supreme Court if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed by the Senate.  Mr. Trump’s expressed reservations about accepting a Biden victory could appear unseemly to his conservative senior supporters and has certainly increased enthusiasm among Democrats to get out their vote.  Mr. Biden’s and Ms. Harris’ unwillingness (thus far) to expressly state that they will not support any Democratic effort to “pack the Court” if Judge Barrett’s nomination is confirmed is obviously an attempt to thread the needle between their Democratic supporters, who polls show favor expanding the Supreme Court if Judge Barrett is confirmed, and Independents, who the same polls show overwhelmingly oppose any plan to “pack the Court.”  [I concede that the level of Independents’ sentiment against such a plan somewhat surprises me, while at the same time being surprised that given my institutionalist instincts, I am not more offended by the notion of such a plan; both reactions presumably stem from my deep revulsion at Senate Republicans’ despicably partisan refusal to consider President Barack Obama’s 2016 nomination of Judge Merrick Garland.  Some old outrages apparently never heal  ;).]    

Finally, as to the true star of the Vice Presidential Debate:  as we watched, I thought maybe I was seeing something, but TLOML suddenly said, “Is that on our screen – or is that a fly on his head?”  We were transfixed; I have no idea what Mr. Pence actually said during the minutes he and the fly shared the stage.  Of the many fine summations of those moments I’ve heard over the last day, my favorites are those of Ken Olin and Joe Scarborough.  Mr. Olin:  “The fly just got a Netflix deal.”  Mr. Scarborough:  “An update this morning:  the fly checked into Walter Reed Hospital.  Our thoughts and the prayers are with the fly.”

On we march.  Stay safe.

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