Mike Pence was the unlikely winner of the vice presidential debate
Like millions of other Americans, I found the experience of watching the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden a stressful one. Three Septuagenarians yelled at each other for 90 minutes, an amazing feat given that only two of them are running for office. It was a horrific spectacle, raw, disgusting, unedifying, almost completely incoherent.
All in all, it was also more enjoyable than what we saw on Wednesday night. This is likely because, despite the passivity of USA Today's presenter Susan Page, the exchange between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence resembled an actual debate. It even had a clear winner in pence who was just boring enough to work that out.
I wasn't sure if it was tough. I expected more sullen head-shaking and passive-aggressive whining, but with a few exceptions, the Vice President had control of the process all evening. I certainly don't enjoy saying that, but Pence sounded like someone who, in theory at least, is capable of being president.
When it came to the environment, he talked about taxes. When it came to abortion and the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, he addressed the murder of Qasem Soleimani. At one point I spent so much time reminding myself what he was supposed to be talking about (it turned out to be China) that I didn't even get the answer. By the end of the evening he had at least two questions behind him.
And somehow it worked. Instead of sounding like a touchless Hoosier grandpa, he seemed to be in control. Like an aging quarterback who knows how to handle referees, he was the clear beneficiary of Page's desire not to appear arrogant. She let him say what he wanted, whenever he wanted. He interrupted at will. It exceeded its two minutes. When Harris tried to do the same it was generally closed.
He also landed a handful of real punches. Harris had nothing to say in response to his straightforward testimony of her dire record as the California Attorney General. He was equally energetic on the Green New Deal and court packaging issues. The most memorable thing Harris said all evening was toilet paper. She frowned and grinned a lot. What came closest to real outrage was voiced in the name of John McCain, who ran her own runner-up against in 2008, in those halcyon days when the late Republican Senator from Arizona was the right monster in place of George Washington of our time was viewed.
This does not mean that there were no mistakes for the Vice President. "Free and fair trade," a slogan Pence has used for years, is not a payline in the swing states of the Midwest, as Trump himself proved in 2016. It was also strange that he did not say anything about Harris' own criticism of Biden's shift in attitudes about race and crime. But the most inexplicable thing was his inability (or simple unwillingness) to defend, or even mention, Trump's nationwide eviction moratorium after Harris raised the issue of Americans worried about paying their rent. Say what you like about Trump, but if asked if China is an opponent of the United States, he would have made a long, wayward, but memorable answer. Also, why didn't anyone tell him about the fly that seemed to be stuck to his hairspray?
Will any of this make a difference in 27 days? I have my doubts whether an inter-presidential debate, let alone a struggle like this, has ever significantly changed the course of a modern election. But to the extent that these things matter at all, Pence has exceeded expectations, and that can't be a bad thing.
Mother will be happy.
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