The vice-presidential debate was, uh, civil. Mostly.
It was, uh, normal. Mostly.
It will be all but forgotten in a day or so. Certainly.
If you watched it, your anticipation level probably dipped fairly quickly into the evening. Going in, you knew it wasn’t going to be Trump-Biden II. But it was clear pretty early that this debate wasn’t going to change the political dynamic whatsoever. We saw a lot of semi-normal political back and forth, a lot of dodging, a little feinting, a vice-presidential debate in which the defining moment was the fly that wouldn’t leave Mike Pence’s head.
And, yes, the Biden campaign is already selling fly swatters — inscribed with the words “Truth over Flies.” It was the most 2020 thing of the night.
The main takeaway, though, is that this debate changed nothing, which meant it was a victory for Joe Biden, who is currently cruising in the polls. In CNN’s instapoll following the debate, Kamala Harris was declared the winner by a wide margin, which probably reflected the state of the race as much as anything else, but probably also that women didn’t much care for Pence’s bad, mad case of mansplaining. The big gap in the polling, of course, comes from the women’s vote, and especially the suburban women’s vote, and I can’t help but think that Pence didn’t help Donald Trump’s cause at all.
The night was certainly OK for Harris, who is still introducing herself to much of America. There was history, of course, in that she is the first woman of color ever to run for vice-president. And, as expected, she did nothing to make anyone think she’s a radical, though Pence tried once, very briefly, to make that case. Let’s just say she easily passed the could-this-person-be-president-given-that-Joe-Biden-is-77-years-old test.
And for Pence, he successfully dodged any difficult question, notably the one about how exactly the Trump administration would protect pre-existing-condition rules given they’re trying to overturn Obamacare in the courts. He also didn’t answer whether climate change was an existential threat. But he did his best to take on an impossible task, which was to defend Donald Trump — and himself — on the disaster that is COVID-19. It was kind of funny, though, when Pence repeatedly said the Trump administration was following the science, on COVID, on climate change. Maybe political science, but not even that, really.
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Pence did defy the rules, talking well past his allotted time over and over again and sort of daring anyone — meaning, the two women with him on the stage — to do something about it. Did America care? I’m guessing Democrats did and Republicans didn’t. It wasn’t anything like Trump’s — you remember the description — shit show. Harris did give her “I’m talking here” reply a few times. She also said, “If you don’t mind letting me finish, we can have a conversation. OK?”
For Harris, it was likely a tactical decision not to do much more. She had several opportunities to hit Pence on his non-answers, but she passed on most occasions. Was it poor debating or was it the game plan?
For moderator Susan Page, it was another night in which the moderator didn’t seem to be in control. She couldn’t get Pence to stop talking. And she did not follow up with either candidate when he or she was dodging a question. Harris dodged questions about packing the court, about Biden’s age and her possible succession, about what exactly Biden’s version of the Green New Deal would look like. Page didn’t force Pence to answer the question about the Supreme Court and Roe v. Wade or whether he would accept the results of an election if Trump were to lose.
I know what I would have liked to talk about if I were on the stage or if I were the moderator, which is how the president, who defies all norms, who refuses to wear masks or socially distance, who doesn’t seem to worry about the safety of those who attend his rallies, managed not only to contract the virus, but to give us a White House that has become a coronavirus hot spot. At last check, there were at least 23 people in and around Trump who have tested positive for COVID-19. Stephen Colbert called the West Wing of the White House the Infest Wing.
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Meanwhile, Trump insisted on working Wednesday from the Oval Office on the same day he was hyper-texting about Barack Obama and HIllary Clinton and “TREASONOUS PLOT” and “CROOKED HILLARY” while also releasing a five-minute rambling video about how he was cured and how contracting COVID was, for him, a “blessing from God.” Maybe not so much for more than 210,000 people who have died from the virus, or their families and friends. Or, for that matter, the more than 7 million other Americans who have contracted the virus.
I would have also asked about Trump’s balcony speech and how he could have possibly entered the White House with no mask on in his contagious state. And why Trump won’t tell us when he last tested negative. There are only two likely answers for that — one, he wasn’t getting tested regularly and that includes before his first debate with Biden; two, he had tested positive before finally warning the public.
In any case, Trump did not self-quarantine after knowing that his close adviser, Hope Hicks, had tested positive. And for that matter, Pence didn’t self-quarantine either after attending the Rose Garden introduction of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, an event that seems to have been a super-spreader.
When Harris attacked the administration’s response on COVID as a failure, Pence attacked back, “When you say what the American people have done over these last eight months hasn’t worked, that’s a great disservice to the sacrifices of the American people.” Of course, no one had criticized the American people. The criticism is of Trump and, yes, Pence, who has headed the White House response to COVID.
The first question was about COVID, and it’s the question that Trump cannot answer. The numbers are the numbers. The facts are the facts. America’s response has been a disaster. And Trump’s decision to pull the plug on a new stimulus deal with so many Americans hurting is an enormous self-inflicted wound that goes against the advice of nearly everyone, including Fed chair Jerome Powell.
But the real unanswered question of the night was whether, given the recent rapid growth of COVID cases and given Pence’s close contact with Trump, there should have been an in-person debate at all. The experts said the plexiglass wasn’t real protection. The 12 feet between the candidates may not have been protection enough. Meanwhile doctors were reasonably questioning why there needed to be an audience.
Don’t be surprised if this is the last in-person debate of the presidential season. And if Biden refuses to debate Trump in the same room — as he might very well — don’t be surprised if there aren’t any more debates at all, which, given the first Trump-Biden debate would be the real blessing.
Let’s face it, after two debates, the only one on stage who ever had two uninterrupted minutes was Pence’s fly.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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