Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, last night’s vice-presidential debate.
The obfuscation around the severity of Donald Trump’s illness since he contracted COVID-19 has brought renewed attention to Mike Pence. What did Wednesday night’s debate show us about both Pence and Kamala Harris, and how will the debate, and Trump’s refusal this morning to take part in the next one, affect the campaign?
The debate will have a huge impact only if The Fly gets a Netflix deal. Despite a concerted media effort to hype the stakes of a face-off between the standbys for two septuagenarian presidential candidates, it was business as usual. Veep debates, like most veeps themselves, never move votes. Nothing happened last night to arrest the polling stampede toward Joe Biden in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s virus-spewing tantrum in the previous debate.
Trump’s refusal to participate in the next debate is another act of self-harm. Biden has all the leverage here. It is a completely reasonable position to all but MAGA death cultists that neither he nor the participating citizens in a town hall debate expose themselves to a COVID superspreader whose current medical condition is a state secret. And since it’s Trump who needs a debate to try to shake up a losing campaign, his decision to bail only hurts himself, not Biden. It makes him look like he is ducking questions and fearful of a format in which he can’t shout over everyone else. His promise that he will hold a rally instead — an implicit threat to infect even more people than he already has — is laughable. We’ll see if he flip-flops on this no-win stand as quickly as he did on his other politically self-immolating move of the week, pulling the plug on stimulus negotiations. The dexamethasone will have the final say.
As for Pence and Harris, it would be hard to claim we learned much new — unless you consider the possibility that Pence, too, is ill. His left eye looked infected and his energy was subdued. Certainly the chairman of the coronavirus task force is taking minimal precautions to preserve his own health. The day before the debate his press secretary, Katie Miller, mocked the Democrats for insisting on a plexiglass barrier onstage: “If Senator Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it.” (A plexiglass barrier as a public-health precaution seems to be the only wall the Trump administration doesn’t want to build.) Given that Miller had herself battled COVID, this was a strange move, and sure enough, karma once again came home to roost. She had hardly made her taunt before the news arrived that her husband, Stephen Miller, the White House’s secretary of xenophobia, had tested positive. As if to further underline Pence’s devil-may-care attitude toward the pandemic, his wife, a.k.a. Mother, appeared onstage unmasked at the debate’s end. (Harris’s husband wore a mask.)
Pence had no good answers — and barely attempted any — to address the president’s catastrophic failure to confront, or at times even to acknowledge, a virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans. He seemed to think that if he tossed out a hypothetical and hyperbolic death toll for the H1N1 outbreak during the Obama administration, somehow voters would ignore the growing COVID casualty rate afflicting Americans right now. What was also striking about Pence was his utter inability to deal with any women who are not Mother. He constantly interrupted Harris and the female moderator, Susan Page, when he was not mansplaining to them. If his goal was to make what is likely to be the largest gender gap in American electoral history even larger, mission accomplished!
Page was an embarrassingly inept moderator. She didn’t have a clue about how to get Pence to stop abusing the time limits, and she didn’t field follow-up queries when the candidates, more often than not Pence, ignored her questions entirely. But this was in one way a plus for Harris, since Page’s passivity allowed Pence’s condescension to play out in full view of those “suburban housewives” the Trump campaign ostensibly aspires to woo. Harris was shrewd to challenge Pence only glancingly and politely on his boorishness; if she’d turned up the tone a notch, she would have immediately been pilloried as an “angry” or “nasty” woman of color by the factotums of the white-supremacist party. Even so, there was plenty of sniping by the usual suspects, spewing the standard GOP boilerplate for targeting female politicians. “I don’t think she did a good job of making herself likable,” said Karl Rove on Fox News.
In terms of substance, Harris made the points she had to make about both the COVID debacle and Trump’s assault on the Affordable Care Act and its coverage of preexisting conditions. Pence didn’t and couldn’t address his administration’s four-year failure to offer its promised health-care plan. Harris, as many have noted, didn’t have an answer to the question about packing the court. If there is another debate, presumably Biden will have an answer by then. But even if he doesn’t, it makes no difference. This election is not going to be decided by voters’ views on packing the court or even on the attempted ramming through of Amy Coney Barrett.
It’s fascinating, though, that both the Trump campaign and Republican senators on the ropes in their re-election bids, like Lindsey Graham, think that Barrett can push them over the top in November. The latest Fox News poll out this week, consistent with others, shows that by a two-to-one margin, Americans want Roe v. Wade upheld (61 to 28 percent) and Obamacare to remain as law (64 to 32 percent). Barrett’s own paper trail, no matter how hard she may try to fudge her record during a confirmation hearing, attests to her minority stand on both these issues. Senate Democrats on the Judiciary Committee should get out of the way and give Harris as much airtime as possible to prosecute the case.
But the most important finding in that new Fox poll — more important than its finding that Biden has doubled his national lead over Trump to ten points since last month — is that only 24 percent of Americans are confident that the virus is under control, down from 30 percent in September. And every hour, it seems, Trump comes up with another stunt to undermine that confidence, whether it’s lording his “miracle” cure over sick Americans who have no access to his (unproven) medication or threatening the integrity of the FDA vaccine-approval process. Not to mention that he has now forsaken epidemiology entirely to turn over national coronavirus policy to a radiologist and Fox News commentator, Scott Atlas, and his own medical care to an osteopathic spin doctor, Sean Conley, who is an even less practiced liar than Sean Spicer.
Republicans are clinging to the hope that this latest awful patch in the Trump narrative will pass without inflicting lasting harm, like the revelation of the Access Hollywood tape four years ago this week. But the Access Hollywood tape only killed Billy Bush’s career, not 210,000 Americans. There’s nothing that happened in last night’s debate or is likely to happen in any future debate that will blot out the pandemic’s continuing body count or Trump’s indelible behavior in the pre-Election Day countdown of his now stark-raving-mad presidency.
Back in the Watergate era, Americans were stunned when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reported that Richard Nixon at his nadir was talking to the paintings on the White House walls. But at least that spectacle happened behind closed doors. Upon Trump’s return from Walter Reed, he stood gasping before the cameras on the Lincoln Balcony in full makeup, saluted into thin air, and held a pose that struck many as a cross between Benito Mussolini and Patti LuPone in Evita. If what we’re witnessing is what Trump calls “a blessing from God,” it will be more incumbent than ever on voters, not God, to save America.