Compared to last week’s Trump-dominated circus of a debate, Wednesday night’s vice-presidential affair felt tame and very much not like the main electoral event. I chatted with national political correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti about what (if anything) Mike Pence, Kamala Harris, and that pesky fly accomplished.
Ben: Gabe, I’m gonna get “meta” on you. Throughout the primary season and into the general-election season, we have often started these debate chats with a “Will what took place tonight actually move the needle?” question. The answer is almost always, if not always, “No.” I’m gonna go ahead and assume tonight’s fairly straightforward proceedings fall into the same category for you.
Gabriel: Ben, I’m going to take some inspiration from the debate and ignore your question and answer another one entirely. Oh, wait, no, you didn’t ask a question! You’re right, I’m right!
Ben: I’ll take inspiration from Susan Page and not follow up on your nonanswer.
Gabriel: But seriously, folks … looking at this debate purely from the “Trump’s narrowing path to 270 electoral votes” window — which is the window through which everything should be viewed at this point — I don’t see any real reason to believe anything changed tonight. To be clear, VP debates almost never change anything. An argument could be made that because Pence did his usual thing — be very conservative, not answer the questions, talk about how much he loves Trump and how his opponents are socialist monsters — some Republicans might be a bit calmer after Trump’s last week of pure chaos. But that’s a stretch. Arguably, the most important piece of this debate was Harris’s introduction to her broadest national audience yet. And she took the chance to introduce her child-of-immigrants background, her prosecutorial career, and — most importantly, for a debate like this — her status as a big booster of whatever Joe Biden says at the moment.
Ben: Pence is known as being pretty much impossible to rattle, and for staying on message, even if that means dodging and obfuscating pretty much constantly. It felt like Harris got the Biden agenda across fairly well, but sometimes had trouble pinning him down on some issues — preexisting conditions, abortion, the integrity of the election.
Gabriel: I think it’s important to remember what the candidates’ goals are at a debate like this: to talk up their top of the ticket and to tear down the opponents’. It’s not unreasonable to think the only things people might remember from the preexisting conditions “debate” was Harris’s warning — “They’re coming for you” — and Pence’s declaration that Obamacare was a disaster. By the way, it’s truly amazing that Pence referred to Trump’s health-care plan. There’s no plan! Trump has been promising to reveal it for, like, three years! I guess it’s not amazing. It’s predictable.
Ben: There were a few amazing lines from him, like citing the fact that President Trump “has Jewish grandchildren” to defend him over his failure to condemn white supremacy.
Gabriel: He didn’t use his old favorite, about Trump’s “broad shoulders.”
Ben: But beyond the fact that he was defending the president’s record, it all felt uncannily like a pre-Trump political event, like something from eight years ago.
Gabriel: At times, sure. Which is not unrelated to why it’s probably going to be totally irrelevant! Anyone who tells you this election is about anything other than Donald Trump is lying to you, or has been in a coma for five years and just woke up two hours ago.
Ben: Sometimes it does feel like half the political press corps fits that description. There was a lot of pre-debate talk about how while most VP debates are irrelevant, this one would be very important — mostly because of Trump’s questionable health. But it definitely seemed like a traditional, forgettable undercard.
Gabriel: I’m not just being an Elitist Pundit (TM) here. You know what this election is about? That pandemic thing. The one that’s killed 210,000 Americans. And how the country — under Trump, who, let’s not forget, HAS the virus! — has handled it. This is borne out in every poll ever. And it’s also extremely obvious. But yeah, there was a fly on Mike Pence’s head.
Ben: I’m so glad you mentioned the fly. How do you think voters in Pennsylvania fracking country will respond to it?
Gabriel: Good question, Ben. I’d like to take this opportunity to not answer that question and make the point I’d like to make, which is that Pence did actually try to make some headway with a very specific group of voters tonight — arguably the ones Trump needs most of all right now: Pennsylvanians. Republicans believe attacking Democrats on fracking is a winner there, and Team Trump is really making a massive bet on that state now, with the polling looking so dire for him all around the country.
Ben: Yeah, he really went hard on that. Think he was effective on that score? To the extent that he could be?
Gabriel: Marginally? But often these elections are won on the margins, right? I mean, he did what he could. Of course, every time he said Biden wanted to ban fracking Harris just said it wasn’t true. (He replied that in her campaign she had wanted to ban it.) Kind of an old back-and-forth that anyone keyed into that issue has heard ad nauseam by now.
Ben: You wrote recently about Kamala Harris’s evolving role in the Biden campaign and how much influence (a lot) she could have in his administration. Did tonight tell you anything new about the kind of VP she’d be?
Gabriel: It’s always hard to tell based on these debates, since the running mates’ job is just to hype their partner. But I will say one thing did stick out to me in particular: I wrote about how Biden, in private, often talks about viewing the presidency as a globally facing job, and when Harris spoke about how he sees foreign policy as a relationship matter, it suggested — as I wrote — that he will likely spend a lot of time working on those relationships. That almost certainly means she’ll get a decent chunk of the domestic agenda on her plate, especially if he’s on Air Force One for a lot of their first year.