Republican insiders felt good about the vice-presidential debate on Wednesday. It wasn’t that Mike Pence proved to be the second coming of Abraham Lincoln or that Kamala Harris was “a gaffe machine” as Donald Trump claimed in his Twitter commentary.
It was simply that, after an eight-day span starting with a debate that even Trump allies described as “a shit show,” Donald Trump’s hospitalization with COVID-19, and countless White House aides and officials being laid with the virus, things were suddenly normal again — or, at least as close to normal as they can ever be in 2020. As one Republican strategist put it after the VP debate finished, “The vibe was as if the normie politics of Earth 2 was superimposed on the dumpster fire of good old 2020.”
In conversations with a half dozen Republican insiders, there was praise for Pence’s performance, which was heralded as “workman-like” by one Republican close to the Trump campaign.
Republicans said Pence hit the marks that he needed to, and as one swing-state operative put it, “If you have Republicans who are in doubt about Trump and the direction of the party. The vice-president could help bring people around.” By contrast, Republicans were skeptical of Kamala Harris’s performance. As one veteran strategist put it, she was “over prepared and bad.” From that Republican operative’s perspective, Pence “smoked her.” They summarized his performance as helping to “stabilize the ship” after a week where bad news cycles followed one after another. “It was an important first step back into the game,” said the Republican close to the Trump campaign.
However, even satisfied Republicans conceded that the impact of a vice-presidential debate is limited at best. The veteran strategist stated flatly that “vice-presidential debates don’t matter.” Another seasoned Republican hand thought that the impact of the debate was more important in future elections than in 2020. “This only ‘mattered’ in [the] sense that at least one of these people is extremely likely to be president in the next four to eight years, but [it’s] hard to see how it would affect the race in any meaningful way,” the person said.
But, at the very least, it provides positive news for the Trump campaign. Even if television pundits are discussing the fly that spent several minutes perched on Mike Pence’s head, they’re not discussing Trump and the coronavirus. As one Republican strategist said, “I think viewers are just left with a calmer feeling than last week, which stems the bleeding.” The strategist added: “Who knows what tomorrow will bring? But for tonight, Pence looked competent and stable behind the wheel.”