At the close, everyone proclaimed the vice-presidential debate to be “civilized.” I guess, after last week’s feces-throwing tantrum by President Trump, even a spitting contest would have seemed tame, but this confrontation featured its own disturbing elements.
Mike Pence—aptly labeled “smarmy” by The Bulwark’s Sarah Longwell—didn’t just dance around questions as all good politicians do, he blatantly refused even the courtesy of acknowledging the questions. He wove falsehoods with the calm assurance of a practiced deceiver, not the manic spin that his boss prefers—but a lie is a lie is a lie.
Asked about the White House event for Amy Coney Barrett, after which at least fourteen attendees tested positive for coronavirus, Pence smoothly suggested that “it was an outdoor event which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advise.” Except we’ve seen the pictures. There were indoor receptions as well that day, at which no one was masked and social distancing was absent.
He said repeatedly that Biden would ban fracking. Harris had expressed support for banning fracking during the primaries, but Biden did not. There was a great deal along those lines, and maybe you can say that’s typical political hyperbole or exaggeration, but it’s impossible to wave away Pence’s response to the question about the peaceful transfer of power.
This is so elemental that any high school government student would be able to give the right answer if you woke her from a deep sleep. Question: Will you accept the results of the election? Answer: Of course. We accept the sovereignty of the people. They make the ultimate decision. We work for them, they don’t work for us.
These are elements so basic to our national creed that for Pence not to have the words trip off his tongue is head-snapping and malign. The pre-Trump Mike Pence would have known what to say. But not this Pence. Asked what he would do if President Trump refused to accept the election results, he at first shook his head as if the question were preposterous. And then he declined to answer it. Instead, he spun out a list of grievances:
When you talk about accepting the outcome of the election, I must tell you, senator, your party has spent the last three and a half years trying to overturn the results of the last election. It’s amazing. . . . If we have a free and fair election, we know—we’re going to have confidence in it.
So the loyal lieutenant to the would-be caudillo on the White House balcony will not say the simple words that any high schooler knows.
As for Kamala Harris, well, she was a bit weak on some topics. She dodged the question of whether the Democrats would pack the Supreme Court, and she forgot to say how much she appreciates the great work of law enforcement, which is advisable when you’re also talking about implicit bias and promising to ban chokeholds. She said Biden would “repeal” the Trump tax cuts “on day one,” which is not how the system works. Unlike most of Trump’s policy moves, the tax cuts were actual legislation that Congress would have to repeal in concert with the president.
But Harris was okay. She scored some points about Trump’s failures and corruption. Though she is a performer, she at least conveyed some human warmth. She seemed more alive than Pence. She smiled and looked lovely doing it. It made a stark contrast to the Stepford husband thing Pence had going. He was almost robotic. He performed his duty. He said the lines. But his eyes looked dead. Maybe we were seeing what four years of soul-crushing sycophancy do to a man.
Will any of it matter to the outcome? Absolutely not.