Kamala Harris and Mike Pence debated Wednesday night. But the fine details of what they said are lost to modern memory. Pundits have tried to piece together the events of that long-forgotten evening by assembling its few surviving fragments: There was a fly in the vice-president’s hair; there was bipartisan support for injecting sandy water into the Earth to bring forth more fuels with which to fry the planet. Of these things, we are certain.
The rest is hazy. Some scholars contend that the vice-president struggled to rationalize his boss’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis, arguing, at one point, that “we actually do know what failure looks like in a pandemic. It was 2009, the swine flu arrived in the United States,” an outbreak that killed about 12,000 Americans. (This account would seem to strain credulity; could the vice-president really have said that “failure in a pandemic” looks like far fewer people dying?) Others maintain that Kamala Harris was needlessly defensive when speaking about climate change and was far better at delivering pre-scripted answers to questions that weren’t asked than cogently rebutting her rival’s attacks. But expert opinion on these matters is far from uniform. All we can say with confidence is that none of it mattered very much.
Okay. That’s enough playfulness for one blog post. Let me tell it to you straight: The vice-presidential debate was jarringly normal. The candidates spoke in complete sentences. They interrupted each other (though the Republican interrupted more), ignored the questions they were asked (though the Republican ignored them more), and misled viewers about inconvenient truths (though the Republican lied more) — but they did it all with passive-aggressive politesse, just like it was done in the olden days of 2014, when “President Donald Trump” was still just a twinkle in Satan’s eye. Pence struck me as more visibly comfortable and smooth in his sophistry. Or maybe he was just whiter and more male. (CNN’s instant poll of debate watchers found Harris winning handily.) Regardless, it’s clear that Pence failed to trick Harris into committing some viral “gaffe” that could compete for attention with our very bronze president’s latest hijinks. Given the present state of the race, that makes the evening a loss for Donald Trump.
But this isn’t the only sense in which Trump was the night’s big loser. There was also the fact that Pence’s pedestrian performance put his own to shame — and, thereby, shot one more hole into the myth of the president’s political gifts.
Granted, that myth was already in sad shape by the time Pence and Harris took the stage. In just the last couple weeks, Trump has:
1) Allowed the White House to become a COVID-19 hotspot by systematically refusing to abide by his own administration’s public health guidelines.
2) Responded to his own hospitalization for COVID-19 by assuring Americans that a virus that’s already killed 210,000 U.S. residents is not that dangerous, and that they should not let it “dominate” their lives — without bothering to say one empathetic word for those who are grieving.
3) Refused to let Democrats help him inject $2 trillion dollars into the economy during the homestretch of his reelection campaign — and then claimed sole credit for the collapse of negotiations.
This was probably enough to establish that — beginner’s luck in 2016 notwithstanding — Donald Trump isn’t very good at politics. But Pence’s performance drove the point home. The former Indiana governor was never known as an especially eloquent or charismatic orator. His ascension to the 2016 ticket was a testament to his weakness, not his strength — given Trump’s apparent odds of victory at the time, only Republicans with little political future left to lose bothered to seek the role. Meanwhile, in Harris, Pence had a far more formidable debate foe than Trump had last week. Joe Biden is arguably a stronger overall candidate than Harris. But at this stage in his career, speaking in clear, complete sentences off-the-cuff is not his strong suit.
And yet, Pence’s showing Wednesday was quite plainly more effective than the festival of incoherent interruption that Trump mounted one week earlier. Given the bar that the president had set for Republican debate performances, Pence’s ability to leaven his lies with a bit of faux-kindly folksiness — and to identify when his rival had dodged a politically vexing question — was enough to make him look like some kind of Socrates.
Barring a large shift in the polls or adverse turn in the president’s health, Trump and Pence will be evicted from the White House next January, and the former Indiana governor will (almost certainly) resume his place in obscurity. But when and if that happens, Pence won’t be the only Republican wondering what could have been, if only they’d held Trump to the rule of law when they had the chance.