Journalists often speculate what it would have been like to be a fly on the wall at some historic event, but a real-life fly did one better and landed on the head of Vice President Mike Pence, the Republican nominee, at Wednesday’s debate with Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee. The fly was likely drawn by the smell of the cause that a beleaguered Pence sought to defend.
The Vice President is an accomplished debater who mastered Republican talking points, even borrowing a familiar line from the gun lobby.
“You will always be in our hearts, and prayers,” he said in a message to families of the 210,000 Americans who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic.
He also managed to argue, with a straight face, that Donald Trump “has put the health of the American people first”, and when claiming America has engaged in “the greatest national mobilization since World War II.”
(The mobilization in World War II was bipartisan and successful, as a democracy out-organized totalitarian foes.)
But even the most capable debater looks foolish when defending failure.
Or debating Kamala Harris.
The Democrats’ nominee for veep came across as crisp and formidable, not only in command of her material but spontaneous in deploying it. In her ability to pivot, Harris evoked memories Derek Jeter turning a double play for the Yankees.
She used a question about presidential candidates’ health to pivot to Donald Trump paying $750 in federal income tax the year he was elected president, and the $400 million in debt that will come due if he serves a second term.
Who are his creditors? Who will be in position to put the arm on the Commander-in-Chief? Harris asked questions that ought to be on the mind of every voter.
Pence was prepared at points. He made a credible argument that the Islamic State group has been suppressed and its leaders killed, with two assassins being flown to the United States for trial. Harris pivoted again, however, to Trump referring to those serving in the armed forces as “losers” and suckers,” and – in the debate’s best line – “Donald Trump, who went to Arlington Cemetery and stood above the graves of our fallen heroes and said, ‘What’s in it for them?’”
She evoked Trump’s relentless demeaning of Senator John McCain, in life and death, by a resident who used a manufactured exemption of bone spurs to stay out of Vietnam. Harris pivoted again, noting support for the Biden-Harris ticket from Cindy McCain, General Colin Powell (who served in the Bush administration as Secretary of State), and five hundred plus retired senior officers.
A third Harris pivot — in which she told the story of “Honest Abe” Lincoln refusing to fill a U.S. Supreme Court seat that came open days before the 1864 election that Lincoln feared he would lose — was equally effective. “He said that’s not the right thing to do,” Harris said in a history lesson to millions of viewers.
Vice presidential debates rarely influence the outcome of contests for the top spot, even when Senator Lloyd Benstsen leveled Dan Quayle with the line: “Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. And Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Bentsen was the running mate on a ticket where the presidential nominee, Michael Dukakis, did not connect.
But: Harris was spirited and joyful, having what seemed to be the time of her life. Pence was delivering familiar arguments, running on and on trying to deliver prepackaged lines from his briefing papers. If this was the initial faceoff of the 2024 presidential race, Harris won hands down.
Hopefully, Harris did more than win a debate. The country is sick of political boilerplate, particularly its younger voters and people of color used to being patronized by politicians who don’t deliver. The spontaneity and spirit of Harris may draw them back in, with memories of Barack Obama.
Pence has been the dutiful second banana to a top banana of unbelievable self-absorption. During the pandemic, he has apparently gotten on well with governors, while Trump has passed the buck and then abused the governors.
Pence has also been a dealmaker in the religious right’s deal with the devil, support for Trump in exchange for packing the federal courts.
Harris is much, much more. It’s easy to picture her stepping into the top spot once Joe Biden passes the torch, blowing away subordinates’ half-baked ideas, and tackling a multitude of fires still smoldering a few years from now.
Harris is polished, rested, ready, and enthusiastic.