5 takeaways from a Vice-Presidential debate that featured a civil tone, evasive answers and a meme-worthy fly.
1) Mike Pence Was Attempting to Settle Evangelical Voters
In the only Vice Presidential Debate of 2020, Mike Pence’s essential task was to speak beyond Harris, and the moderator, to the Evangelical base of the Republican party. Pence was selected as Trump’s running mate in 2016 to link the capitalist / Wall St wing with the morally conservative Christian wing of the Republican party. Pence was able to give Evangelical voters, skeptical of Trump’s brashness and infidelities, a reason to hold their noses and vote for the ticket. Together with Trump’s release of a list of prospective Supreme Court justices, Evangelicals felt there was sufficient motivation to come out at the polls.
Four years later, at the debate with Kamala Harris, Pence attempted to perform the same function. This time, the push and pull for Evangelicals is exponentially more intense: the behavior of the President has become more caustic, erratic, and narcissistic; but the confirmations of Supreme Court justices has been, from an Evangelical standpoint, a superb outcome, and another justice is pending. Pence was able to act as a permission-slip for those voters, articulating their goals, and referring to faith and pro-life themes in a subdued tone, and with mid-west unflappable calm. For all that, however, it is doubtful whether the performance will have moved the needle a great deal, with attitudes so hardened either for or against the President, in contrast to the 2016 campaign, where Trump had no record to defend, and large numbers of undecided voters broke late for Trump.
Mike Pence’s essential task was to speak beyond Harris, and the moderator, to the Evangelical base of the Republican party.
2) Harris Made Herself Look Mature and Reliable
For Harris, there were three fundamental objectives. Joe Biden is 77, and a core attack from the right has been that Joe Biden is old, and has lost a step cognitively. In laying out her record, and appearing smooth, informed, and competent, she was able to convey to voters who like Joe Biden but are worried about variables to do with his health and longevity, that she could assure continuity and calm in a crisis and step into the job. Secondly, tied to this, she was able to walk the tightrope of cultural tropes about women in the public eye, not appearing a ‘strident’ or ‘bossy’ woman – and a woman of color at that – and presented equanimity and composure. Thirdly, she had to strike hard and consistently at the administration’s response to Covid, and she did this reasonably well, too.
Harris was able to walk the tightrope of cultural tropes about women in the public eye, not appearing a ‘strident’ or ‘bossy’ woman – and a woman of color at that – and presented equanimity and composure.
3) Both Candidates Dodged and Weaved
Harris refused to address a question about whether a Biden-Harris administration would pack the Supreme Court, instead deflecting to an accusation that Trump and Pence had ‘packed’ the lower courts, by not nominating enough black judges. Both candidates evaded a question about how they would respond if the president became incapacitated while in office. Harris’ past support for the Green New Deal, as a co-sponsor, led her to provide a dubious answer about her past commitment, then pivot to accusing the Trump administration of not believing in science. Pence was unclear about whether he would accept the results of the election and commit to a peaceful transfer of power. At times, both candidates didn’t even attempt a nominal addressing of a question, and instead changed the subject entirely. Voters learned almost nothing last week, in the loud and belligerent Presidential debate, and they will have learned next to nothing from the vice-presidential debate, despite the tone being more civil.
Both candidates evaded a question about how they would respond if the president became incapacitated while in office.
4) There was no defining moment
Were anyone to scroll for a few minutes through their Twitter feed, they would be able to round-up half-a-dozen witticisms, clever turns of phrase and epigrams about the political situation. Zingers, in other words. These top-flight politicians must also, presumable, have some of the most able wordsmiths at their disposal, with months in advance to craft and refine language and decide upon the most effective and memorable lines to deliver to an opponent, or with which to connect with the audience at home. It is odd, therefore, that the rhetoric in the debate was so conventional, lacking in dynamism and largely forgettable. The candidates in the vice-presidential debate, as in most vice-presidential debates, seemed so risk-averse, so loath to be spontaneous, that they were essentially playing it safe, both in the short term of the present campaign, and with an eye to a future run for President.
Watch: Highlights and Takeaways from the 2020 Harris-Pence Vice Presidential Debate
The rhetoric in the Harris-Pence debate was conventional, lacking in dynamism and largely forgettable.
5) In a few days’ time, hardly anyone will remember
Sadly, the thing that many people will recall in the years ahead will be the fly that landed on Mike Pence’s head and remained there for a good two minutes. Those watching in the future will also remark at the curious symbol of the pandemic – plexiglass screens erected between the candidates – one of whom may have been infected at the time with Covid, and whose boss was in quarantine in the White House, which was populated by a tiny staff of people wearing personal protective equipment, so as not to contract the virus from the President of the United States.