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Harris-Pence debate: a tame event, bordering on boring

Kamala Harris did fine, but engineered no real breakthrough moments. Mike Pence’s strategy was clear: Don’t address the questions you were asked, most of which might lead to dark places.

Sen. Kamala Harris speaking during the 2020 vice presidential debate on Wednesday night.
Sen. Kamala Harris speaking during the 2020 vice presidential debate on Wednesday night.
Morry Gash/Pool via REUTERS

I’ll try to keep this short.

For me, the big vice presidential debate last night was mostly a waste of time, demonstrating a number of things we already knew.

On substance, Sen. Kamala Harris was the clear winner, not because she did particularly well but because Vice President Mike Pence lied so much,  although in the liar category he is obviously the runner-up by a huge margin to his running mate.

Harris did fine, but engineered no real breakthrough moments, in my humble opinion.

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As veteran Democratic strategist and now TV analyst David Axelrod said in the aftermath, when you are the running mate on a ticket with a lead approaching double digits and rising, your main mission is to do no harm. And if you are an African-American candidate, it’s apparently important not to do anything that can be branded as “angry.” At least that’s the received wisdom.

Assuming those were Harris’ goals, she accomplished her mission, although if you had watched the instant reaction on the Sean Hannity program, you would think Harris had been preaching violent socialist revolution.

After the first presidential debate, in which Donald Trump declared to the world that no rules of respecting an opponent during the opponent’s time — nor the time limits for his own answers, nor the other rules to which he had agreed — applied to him, it seemed like a tame event, bordering on boring.

Pence also violated the rules constantly. Someone will add up how many more minutes (they sometimes seemed like hours) Pence managed to steal for his palavering, or exactly how much time he spent talking after the moderator said, “Your time is up.” If I see that figure appear somewhere, I’ll try to pass it along.

But coming after Trump’s far more egregious display of stealing time, talking out of turn, interrupting constantly in the first debate, Pence seemed a comparative gentleman, which is about as back-handed as a compliment can get.

Harris, who definitely has a tough side, kept it in check. A lot of the post-debate analysis suggested that black women in America have learned that anything but sweetness and calm will be interpreted as dangerous anger. And Harris was abiding by that. The smile seldom left her face.

I would have been fine with Harris being tougher, and Pence’s rules violations certainly gave her plenty of opportunities.

Vice President Mike Pence speaking during last night's vice presidential campaign debate.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Vice President Mike Pence speaking during last night's vice presidential campaign debate.
A former prosecutor, she did, of course, prosecute the case that President Trump’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a cataclysmic disaster for America’s health, and for America’s economy, and for its standing in the world, but she generally wrapped up whenever the moderator told her her time was up.

Pence did not. He broke every time-related rule, by which he had presumably agreed to abide. But it almost didn’t seem to matter how long he talked, since he never said anything remotely interesting, nor, God knows, trenchant — nor, for that matter, sincere.

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His strategy was clear: Don’t address the question you were asked by the moderator, most of which might lead to dark places. Don’t acknowledge that the administration you represent has done anything less than a stellar job with COVID and with sustaining America’s international standing, and with preserving the environment for future generations, and with respecting laws, rules or norms. No. Shrug. Wag your head a bit. Appear saddened, but only mildly so, by how mistreated Donald Trump has been by his unfair critics and by, well, reality.

I promised to keep this short, and, luckily, I don’t yet have access to a full transcript, so I’ll wrap up, just to illustrate what I’ve said above, with one hilariously evasive answer that came out of that whole Pence-ian “more in sadness” approach.

Moderator Susan Page asked Pence to pledge, as every precedent suggests he should, that he and his running mate would abide by the result if the Trump-Pence ticket loses the election. See if you can find the spot where he answered that with a yes or a no or a maybe or an “up yours,” and bear in mind that although he was asked the question by Page he replied to his opponent, thus:

Senator Harris, you and your colleagues in the Congress tried to impeach the president of the United States over a phone call. And now Hillary Clinton has actually said to Joe Biden, in her words, under no circumstances should he concede the election.

I think we’re going to win this election, if we have a free and fair election, we know we’re going to have confidence in it. And I know and believe in all my heart that President Donald Trump will be re-elected for four more years.”

He had already exceeded his time for that answer and Page, who was way too passive in general and especially in this instance — in which Pence absolutely avoided saying what every previous aspirant for president or vice president has always said, that of course they would abide by the result — didn’t ask the urgent, obvious follow-up which would go roughly: “Yeah, but if you do lose, will you leave?”

Wouldn’t have mattered if she had. Pence was in his aw-shucks zone.

I guess they’ll keep us guessing on that one, and on the question of whether we still have a functioning democracy when he and Trump do finally evacuate from the White House.