From 1976 to 2016, there were ten vice presidential debates. None mattered.
The most memorable moment—Lloyd Bentsen’s withering retort to the shallow, callow Dan Quayle that “you’re no Jack Kennedy”—had no discernible impact on the campaign of 1988. And the only vice-presidential contest with more viewers than the presidential debates, that pitting Joe Biden against Sarah Palin, owed everything to Palin’s riveting emergence as a human trainwreck-in-process.
But last night’s clash between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris arrived laden with portent.
The two presidential candidates are the oldest ever to seek the office, underscoring the importance of their running mates. One, the incumbent president, has been sickened by an epochal pandemic which has abraded the nerve ends of our societal fractiousness. But the long shadow of Donald Trump’s contagion also dogged the actuarially vulnerable Joe Biden—not least because some feared that he might have contracted the virus during their corrosive debate.
Trump’s illness illuminated the prospect that Pence might succeed him in office—or, most dramatic, become the de facto Republican nominee should Trump die before November. And the prospect that a President Biden might serve but one term creates the possibility that Pence and Harris will fight for the presidency in 2024.
More immediate is the here and now. Given the president’s uncertain health, and his resistance to rules changes, last night’s broadcast might become the final debate through which voters can compare the choices before them. In a time when one disorienting event after the other assaults us with vertiginous swiftness, Americans are grasping for any person or event that affords them some hope—however transient—of stability to come.
The imperatives for Pence began with transcending his vice-presidential persona: an obsequious toady who will do anything to ingratiate himself with his narcissistic master. With his pipe organ voice, bobblehead nods, and the oleaginous manner of an unctuous church elder, he seems so devoid of wit or self-awareness that he becomes a parody of provincial Republican piety. And his calculated fusion of ostentatious religiosity with corporate subservience and disdain for the rights of minorities and women stunts his appeal beyond the GOP base.
Nonetheless, Pence is a seasoned debater who dispenses partisan attack lines with a serene disregard for truth that renders him incapable of insulting his own integrity or intelligence. In 2016, that worked well enough for Pence to stymie Tim Kaine. But the demands facing him last night were of a different order.
Indeed, Pence arrived in a quadruple bind: He must defend Trump on all fronts while avoiding the shameless sycophancy which has shriveled his stature; justify his own performance as head of Trump’s coronavirus task force in the face of so much death; present himself as a plausible instant president; and preserve his viability as a candidate in 2024. The potentially excruciating particulars included touting Trump’s health without becoming Baghdad Bob; rationalizing Trump’s objectionable debate performance and flagrant disregard for public health protocols; embracing Trump’s counterfactual optimism about America’s path to recovery from COVID-19; and tarring Biden and Harris as un-American agents of socialism and disorder.
All this would be arduous for a politician far more gifted and compelling than the man some Indiana legislators labeled “Mike Dense.” Beyond that, Harris’s prosecutorial demeanor combined with her ethnicity and gender to made her a trickier opponent than Kaine. Even the setting underscored Trump’s failures: Salt Lake City has become a coronavirus hotspot, and Pence and Harris were separated by a plexiglass shield which symbolized the pandemic’s accelerating spread.
Harris faced her own daunting challenges. Her considerable skills at political theater helped secure her spot on the ticket. But her own presidential candidacy foundered on the lack of a fixed political identity, a shaky grasp of policy, and a conspicuous uncertainty in unscripted moments.
By the end of her campaign, fewer Americans imagined her as president than when she began. And she struggled throughout to convey a public persona larger and more engaging than a facile politician whose political raison d’être was ambition.
On Wednesday night, her imperative was to seem bigger—and better. In bearing and substance, she needed to appear sufficiently knowledgeable and commanding to be president; to take the edge off her aggression by projecting a warmer and more dimensional persona; and to prosecute the case against a sickened president without appearing too relentlessly prosecutorial.
That meant providing a more engaging and relatable contrast to Pence’s public sanctimony; praising Joe Biden without evoking Pence’s subservience; and proving as adept in spontaneous debate as she is in dispensing prepackaged attack lines. Her potential vulnerabilities included positions from her own presidential campaign on critical issues like healthcare that contradicted Biden’s positions; her withering attack on Biden as racially insensitive in the first primary debate; her supposed affinity for violent protesters and non-support for police; and Biden’s own evasions with respect to whether he will seek to expand the Supreme Court.
The obvious goal for Pence was to paint Harris—however inconsistently—as both a closet radical bent on pulling Biden’s strings and a calculating chameleon whose only principle is self-interest. Given that many viewers came to the debate lacking a settled sense of Harris as a politician or a person, she, like Pence, had a great deal to win or lose—now, and in 2024.
But she took the stage with one great advantage: Biden is pulling away from Trump, in part because he is an infinitely saner and better person. All Harris needed to accomplish was secure a draw with Pence which kept these favorable dynamics in place.
In contrast, Pence came dragging Trump’s flailing campaign performance like an anvil—most recently, his self-immolation in the debate last week; his callous and narcissistic response to contracting COVID-19; and his abrupt reversal of a decision to cancel stimulus talks so pointless and peremptory that it heightened concerns about his emotional stability. Thus impaired, Pence nonetheless needed to wound Harris so badly that it damaged Biden twice over—first, because he chose her; second, because she might succeed him.
Perhaps this was impossible. In the event, it proved too much to accomplish.
Both candidates were predictably themselves; neither revealed surprising new dimensions of personality or substance. Both were conveniently evasive, both recited nonresponsive talking points. But in the process Harris acquired a bit more stature, while Pence underscored his more annoying qualities.
Much of this was manner. While consistently poised and steady, Harris dialed down her prosecutorial persona. Though she reprised Trump’s lack of honesty, integrity, or concern for others, in a clearly tactical decision she refrained from discussing his illness, his own role as a superspreader, his related carelessness for the health of coworkers and Secret Service agents, or his erratic and vainglorious recent behavior.
Consistently, Harris brought the subject back to Biden’s character and programs in a way that felt genuine and convincing. In confronting Pence, she managed to combine unruffled firmness with sufficient stability. She left behind no gaffes or sour notes.
Not so Pence. As ever, he walked the line between smooth and smarmy, repackaging reality in a way that belied four chaotic years of presidential malpractice which culminated in what Harris called “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country”—the tragic toll of COVID-19. But when Harris nailed Trump for withholding the truth from his fellow citizens, Pence fell back on vapid bromides about trusting the American people—which, fatally and all too obviously, he and Trump had not.
Perhaps this accounted for his oddly wan performance—Pence knew too well that he could not banish 210,000 dead Americans from our collective mind. But his more energetic moments were particularly unfortunate: He became a relentless male monologist who interrupted both Harris and the moderator, Susan Page, evoking every pompous white guy who stifles any woman he encounters.
One could sense a million females grinding their teeth in suppressed anger and frustration. By the time Pence left the stage, he had way overstayed the pleasure of his company. Beyond the lingering residue of insufferability, the most lasting impression was of the fly which settled, quite comfortably, into the white helmet of his hair. But the serious consequence was that, perhaps inescapably, he had squandered any chance to change the trajectory of the race.
True, Harris evaded questions about whether she and Biden had discussed how and when she would assume responsibilities should he become incapacitated; her more liberal positions as a presidential candidate; and, most predictably, whether Biden would pack the Supreme Court—a point that Pence drove home. Here, Harris most resembled the dissembling politician Pence strove to conjure.
But the questions Pence evaded were like a roadmap of Trump’s abuses, derelictions, and political weaknesses: Trump’s failure to pay income taxes; Trump’s consistent non-disclosures regarding his personal health; Trump’s nonexistent plan to protect people with pre-existing conditions; Trump’s refusal to embrace a peaceful transition of power. No doubt Pence had no answers because there are none.
Equally telling as both a matter of politics and character, Pence displayed the breathtaking cynicism of a man who believes that God believes in him—no matter what he says or does. He responded to questions about climate change by claiming that he and Trump are following the science; accused Harris of playing politics with the pandemic and, therefore, people’s lives; and falsely accused Harris of discouraging Americans from taking a putative vaccine.
But then, as catalogued by the Washington Post, Pence lied with such frequency and facility that he became hard to distinguish from his temporal master. One wonders what role conscience plays in God’s plan for Michael Pence.
But in the here and now he cannot escape the coronavirus, and Harris did not let him. When he tried to pivot to the Supreme Court, Harris hit him with Trump’s efforts to eliminate the Affordable Care Act. When Pence tried to tout the economy, Harris connected Biden’s plans to combat climate change with creating American jobs.
When Pence complained that Biden would repeal Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy, Harris retorted that he would invest the proceeds in infrastructure, education, and free community college for those who need it. When Pence falsely claimed, serially, that Biden would abolish fracking and raise taxes on every American, Harris responded that the debate was supposed to about facts and truth—and then crisply refuted both claims.
In foreign policy, Harris criticized Trump’s consistent disdain for allies and his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. And she pilloried Trump for his subservience to Vladimir Putin; his acceptance of Russia’s literally incredible denial of electoral interference over the judgment of our intelligence agencies; and his repeated failure to confront Putin over Russia’s reported placement of bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan.
In sum, when a draw was all she needed, Harris did her job well enough to win.
Pence’s problem was that Trump has made her job too easy—America’s tragedy is that he did so by degrading his office and dividing our country. From that, Pence had no escape. Because he did not, America is one debate closer to escaping Donald Trump.