“They knew what was happening, and they didn’t tell you,” Harris said. “They knew and they covered it up. … The President said you’re on one side of his ledger if you wear a mask, you’re on the other side of his ledger if you don’t. And in spite of all of that, today they still don’t have a plan.”
While both Pence and Harris refused to say whether they had discussed the ticklish topic of the succession with their septuagenarian ticket toppers, given their assured performances at the debate it would not be a stretch to envision either of them in the Oval Office.
The debate might actually have been the most normal moment of a campaign warped by a once-in-a-century pandemic, virtual conventions, darkened rallies and constant eruptions by a volcanic commander-in-chief.
And in a moment that summed up the White House’s repeated flouting of public health recommendations, second lady Karen Pence removed her facemask as she stood on stage with her husband following the event, in an apparent infringement of agreed upon rules. Harris’ husband, Douglas Emhoff, kept his mask on when he went on stage to congratulate his wife.
Back in Washington, aides who wanted to talk to a sickened President who disdains masks and social distancing had to don face-coverings and surgical gowns.
His intervention encapsulated Pence’s burden: trying to impose a sheen of success on a presidency that while wildly popular with the conservative base is seen by a majority of voters as unmoored amid a clutch of crises over public health, the economy and race less than four weeks from Election Day.
‘Excuse me, Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking’
Both Pence and Harris did what conventional, polished politicians do — they landed blows, probed one another’s weaknesses and artfully dodged the questions for which they did not have a politically safe answer. It was largely a civil affair after last week’s meltdown in front of millions of viewers by an over-torqued Trump.
Harris several times was forced to stifle Pence, who frequently spoke past his time, with the words, “Excuse me, Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking” — a retort weighted by the gender and racial dimensions given her historic status vying to become the first Black and South Asian American female vice president, and her nomination has already made history. But the interruptions went both ways, and there was no need to drown out Pence, as smooth and priestly as ever, with “the shut up man!” admonition employed by Democratic nominee Joe Biden last week.
Pence, who as the head of the coronavirus task force shares blame for the chaotic response to the crisis, tried as he often does to project optimism about the pandemic. But the fact he’s been doing so for months tended to undercut his effectiveness. In a brazen moment, he accused Harris of politicizing hoped-for vaccines and disrespecting the sacrifices of Americans during a dark time.
“Stop playing politics with people’s lives,” Pence warned Harris in an ironic assault since Trump has consistently put his own political needs ahead of a fact-based approach to an emergency that has devastated normal life.
The vice president fell back on familiar and fact-twisting arguments that Trump had saved millions of lives, misrepresenting his China travel ban and hyping the prospect of vaccines that experts say may get approved this year but will not be available to most Americans until well into 2021. Often, Pence delivered the same misinformation as the President about the pandemic, even if his courtly manner did not make the transgressions seem so flagrant.
Harris repeatedly brought the argument back to an indictment of the Trump-Pence response to the virus. The two plexiglass screens between the candidates were a constant reminder of the issue that the vice president could not escape.
Both candidates can walk away satisfied
Pence accomplished what he came to do — defending Trump — and was most effective in cross-examining Harris on whether Democrats would try to increase the size of the Supreme Court bench to subvert Trump’s conservative majority. He was also strong on the economy. He took aim at Biden when Harris attacked the President’s trade wars, calling the top Democrat on the ticket a “cheerleader for Communist China through several decades.”
Harris didn’t do much to clear up Biden’s climate change policy as Republicans accuse him of embracing the liberal Green New Deal approach they claim will kill the energy industry and jobs. And the California senator demanded the White House let voters decide on the destiny of the Supreme Court, pushing back against Trump’s nomination of conservative favorite Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
In a worrying sign, in an election that could tear at constitutional norms, Pence joined his boss in refusing to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power. And he parroted conservative media talking points pushing back against the truth that Trump declined to disavow white supremacists during last week’s fiery first debate with Biden.
Conservatives likely thought Pence did great and find the prospect of a Harris vice presidency horrifying. The same is undoubtedly true the other way around. Liberals could find much to embrace in Harris’ performance while viewing Pence as on a different ideological planet.
But given that Trump’s campaign desperately needs a reset, and a ray of hope going into the final three weeks of the campaign with the convalescing President on the sidelines, it was ultimately probably a more satisfactory night for the Democratic campaign. And while they often provide entertaining moments, vice presidential debates don’t decide elections, a truism that is even more appropriate this year with the most tumultuous presidency in generations is on the ballot.
Ultimately, in years to come, history might remember the night not for the jousting of two capable performers but for the single fly that settled on Pence’s white hair at one point, spawning scores of instant social media memes.