The first – and only – vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris is over.
It was a far more civil affair than last week’s debacle between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
I watched, tweeted and took notes. Below, my thoughts on the best and the worst from the night that was.
* Kamala Harris: The California senator’s best 15 minutes of the debate were the first 15 minutes of the debate. Helped by the focus on Covid-19 – and the Trump administration’s botched handling of the pandemic, Harris crushed Pence with the record of the administration he is a part of. “They knew and they covered it up,” she said of Trump’s admission that he purposely downplayed the severity of the virus. Harris was less strong in defending Biden’s record – in particular Pence’s repeated attacks on Biden’s supposed assertion that he would repeal all of the Trump tax cuts and end fracking. (Harris said Biden would ensure taxes would not go up on anyone making less than $400,000 and insisted, repeatedly, that Biden would not ban fracking.) And her dodge of a question on whether a Biden administration would add seats to the Supreme Court was a miss. Overall, however, I think Harris did what a good VP should do – she slammed Trump, particularly on Covid-19, and kept the focus largely on the current administration. She did so with a calm, cool and collected demeanor; when Pence interrupted, she used silence and a stare – often more effective than any words. And her “Mr. Vice President, I am speaking” line is going to be one to remember for Democrats.
* Mike Pence, on offense: The vice president is a very solid (and underrated) debater. His best moments on Wednesday night came when he was prosecuting the past statements of both Biden and Harris – on taxes, on fracking, on the Green New Deal, on China. It’s harder than you might think to weave opposition research dumps into an answer in a debate without it looking totally forced. Pence is excellent at it. And looking at the debate solely through the lens of Pence’s political future being tied to defending, with no quarter given, the record of Donald Trump, he acquitted himself nicely.
* Susan Page’s questions: Yes, the moderator took a lot of heat for her inability to rein in Pence when he kept talking beyond the time limit. (More on that below.) But if you go back and listen to (or read) her questions, they were outstanding. Pointed, thoughtful and, unfortunately, largely unanswered.
* The fly: Look, say what you will about the media focusing on the unimportant stuff. But there was a damn fly on Pence’s hair for two solid minutes! (This is not an exaggeration; it was actually two minutes.) Has a fly ever received more exposure? Heck, Biden even sent out a fly fundraising appeal while the debate was still going on! Also, if you don’t think this debate will be remembered as the “fly debate,” well then, please allow me to introduce you to politics.
* Twitter: I have a love/hate relationship with the social media platform, but it really is at its best on big political nights like this. Funny and insightful, with snark sprinkled on top and just the right amount of mean baked in there, too.
* Mike Pence, on defense: It is a herculean task to try to defend Trump’s actions (and inactions) on the coronavirus pandemic. That was the job before Pence on Wednesday night and, not surprisingly, he came up short. Pence glossed over Trump’s repeated skepticism of proven mitigation strategies – mask-wearing, social distancing, avoiding large crowds – and instead tried to make the entire conversation about individual freedom. The thing about individual freedom is that you are not free to do things that impinge on others’ health and safety. Mitigating Covid-19 isn’t about individuals’ freedom, it’s about collective action. Trump’s inability to grasp that is indefensible – and Pence was not able to defend it.
* Susan Page’s refereeing: In the actual give-and-take of the debate, Page, the USA Today Washington bureau chief, struggled somewhat. The most glaring issue was that she simply could not get either candidate to answer the questions asked of them. I lost count of how many times Harris and Pence openly ignored the question Page asked to give what was, oftentimes, a rehearsed speech. (The most glaring example was when Harris took a Page question about Biden’s age and whether they had talked about the possibility of transferring presidential power and spent two minutes just walking people through her life story.) The other problem with how Page handled the debate was that she was simply unable to keep Pence from going way over his allotted time. She tried gamely, but it became clear pretty early on that her “Mr. Vice President” interjection wasn’t stopping the Pence train. She should have tried another tactic. And of course, cutting off candidates’ mics when they go over the agreed-upon time to answer questions is the real solution here – which is in the hands of the campaigns and the Commission on Presidential Debates, not Page.
* Donald Trump/Joe Biden: Both Pence and Harris were more substantive and more effective than either of the men who are leading their respective tickets. Yes, Trump made it impossible to have a debate with any sort of rules or decorum, but when Biden got his chances in last week’s debate, he was decidedly mediocre. Like them or hate them, Pence and Harris proved they are both better debaters than their ticket mates on Wednesday night.
* Acrylic glass: The dividers keeping the candidates from breathing on each other were all the rage of the pre-debate coverage. And yet they were barely ever shown on screen. Oh, and also: Every infectious disease expert said they were totally pointless.