What a difference four years makes. Back in 2016 Mike Pence, by almost every measure, won the vice presidential debate as conclusively as such victories can ever be determined. Now, in the battle of the 2020 running mates, the US vice president finds himself just as conclusively on the losing side of the equation.
Democratic challenger Kamala Harris, in her biggest outing yet on the national stage, came not only prepared to meet her opponent, but also to use the platform to connect with voters on a personal level. Pence, by contrast, seemed disengaged and disheartened, as though he were at the dentist’s office for a root canal.
In a civilised debate that reflected the seriousness of the moment, voters had a chance to compare the two candidates and their visions for the country. But apart from policy differences, viewers also saw two very different human beings: One who smiled and one who did not. One who engaged with the moderator’s questions and one who barely pretended to. One who exuded passion, one who just wanted to get the whole thing over with.
Apart from Harris’s dominance, the other headline to emerge from this debate is that twice in a row now: President Trump and Vice President Pence have refused to affirm on the debate stage that they would accept the people’s will on Election Day. If the last two presidential debates actually do take place, let us hope that this becomes a key issue for discussion.
Meanwhile, the vice-presidential debaters:
In her very first answer of the debate, Harris called Trump White House’s pandemic response the “greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” immediately putting Pence on the defensive. Using skills honed in the courtroom, Harris laid out a damning case, built largely on Trump’s own words.
For the remainder of the evening, Harris pressed the critique, and in so doing she appeared to catch Pence more off-guard than might have been expected. Harris often looked directly at her opponent as she levelled her most scathing critiques, telling Pence, for instance: “There was a time our country believed in science.”
Harris displayed an ability to connect directly to viewers, to relate abstract issues to everyday lives. “If you have a pre-existing condition, they are comin’ for you,” she said, in one of her most effective lines. Far more than her opponent, Harris recognised that the point of a debate is also to serve as a nationally televised job interview, so it does not hurt to play up to the boss.
Harris stayed on message often placing US Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden at the centre of her responses, almost to a fault. Neither Harris nor Pence ever did address moderator Susan Page’s question about the advanced age of the presidential candidates, but Harris should have – that is something voters are legitimately concerned about, especially with the question of presidential succession looming large amid Trump’s battle with COVID-19.
Similarly, Harris punted on the issue of expanding the Supreme Court, a topic she ought to have been ready for. This discussion was one of the few times when Pence came across as more animated and on-point than his rival.
Harris also failed to capitalise on some obvious openings, such as Pence’s complete evasion of how he would legislate abortion if the landmark US Supreme Court ruling that protects reproductive rights – Roe vs Wade were overturned. Harris’ Supreme Court answers lacked the sharpness and urgency the topic deserves.
But at her best—which was most of the debate—Kamala Harris demonstrated that Biden had chosen his political partner well. Especially for a newcomer, it is not easy to pull off what Harris did.
Going into this debate, Pence had a reputation for being a good-natured, easy-going communicator, with an “aw-shucks” style that disarmed his opponents. Certainly, this is what happened in 2016 with Tim Kaine, then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s running mate.
The Pence of 2020 was a much darker presence, with the nothing of the happy warrior about him. Admittedly, it cannot be easy to defend against the deaths of 210,000 Americans during the pandemic, but Pence barely tried.
His trademark platitudes were there, as when he said of the casualties: “You’ll always be in our hearts and in our prayers.” And as before, Pence applied his experience as a radio talk show host to the fine art of running out the clock.
Most annoyingly for the audience, Pence almost never chose to answer the question on the table. Instead, he kept going back to litigate the previous discussion, throwing the rhythm of the debate off and sidestepping the matter at hand.
Pence mounted a defence of Trump that was lukewarm at best. Only fleetingly did we see the trademark Pence who could once spin away anything Trump said or did.
For instance, on climate change, when Pence said: “President Trump has made it clear we’re going to be listening to the science,” it was the Pence of old, willing to make an outrageous claim with a straight face.
Pence fared better in congratulating Harris on the “historic nature” of her candidacy. In some ways, such a remark might be dismissed as another means of frittering away the time and avoiding more serious matters, but it is rare to hear anything positive from one side to the other, and so for Pence that was a good move.
On the other hand, it was disturbing to watch Pence train his gaze on Harris specifically when he uttered the words “looting and rioting” or “rioters and looters,” as though she could be personally equated with such actions. That this occurred during a discussion of systemic racism spoke volumes to anyone willing to read between the lines.
If this ends up being the final general election debate of 2020, it will be remembered as the 90 minutes that put Kamala Harris on the national political map, and the 90 minutes that deflated at least some of Pence’s plans for the future.