Having watched every major party presidential and vice presidential debate ever – all 45 of them – as part of my doctoral research, I concluded that Trump-Biden 1 on September 26 may very well have been the worst of all time, and that includes Carter-Ford 1 44 Septembers ago, a stale yawner to begin with worsened by a 27-minute delay to fix the audio. But in the case of Trump-Biden, a little dullness might have been welcome. It was probably the most uncivilized debate of all, but scoring it was easy. Trump won if you thought he was the bull steamrolling over a turtle, and Biden won if he came across as the voice of reason in the presence of a raving lunatic. I gave that one to Trump, because in my view, Trump did come across as a bully and Biden as overwhelmed, and while bullies are contemptuous, weaklings in the Oval Office are to be avoided at all costs.
The 2020 Running Mates debate, though, between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, was starkly different in its civility, but much harder to score. On first impression, I don’t know what annoyed me more: Trump and Biden interrupting one another or Pence and Harris politely ignoring moderator Susan Page’s questions.
Unlike her counterpart in the first debate, Chris Wallace – who must have forgotten that as a moderator he shouldn’t incessantly interject with follow-up questions and counterpoints, like when he’s interviewing guests on Fox News Sunday – USA Today’s Page asked one question and then sat back. Until, that is, debaters exceeded their allotted time, and then Page was on them like a hawk on a chicken, imploring them to stop talking. Usually, moderators give a warning and wait a few seconds for candidates to finish their thoughts. Not Page, though, she is quite the time stickler. I like the Wall Street Journal’s idea better: give each candidate a microphone, have them speak for two minutes, and then it automatically shuts off. Back-and-forth.
As to who won the debate, I gave it to Harris by a razor-thin margin. As I’ve written before, it’s not about who made the better points which, after all, is subjective. In that case, from my political perspective, I think Pence won. Of course I disagree that Trump called Mexicans “rapists and criminals,” issued a Muslim ban, and called white supremacists “very fine people” – heck, right there that’s three chapters’ worth of myths I debunk in my book Trumped-Up Charges! But that’s not how debates are typically scored. Rather, it is more about who helped his or her campaign the most, and while both did a fine job in that department, I give it to Harris by a smidgen.
Stylistically, Pence is the anti-Trump. If the president is the overbearing loudmouth, his VP is the consummate gentleman. Always well-groomed and well-mannered, Pence brings niceness to Trump’s platform. But he doesn’t know how to turn a “your time is up” moment into an opportunity to finish quickly and with flair. Granted, Page was overly conspicuous with her time-related admonishments, but Harris was more disciplined in zipping her lip.
Generally, women have it rough in politics. If they’re too nice, they’re seen as weak. Too strong, and their labeled “bitchy.” Kamala Harris doesn’t have that problem. She is clearly not a pushover, but she doesn’t have the shrillness of Hillary Clinton. Granted, many critics – male and female alike – are repulsed by what they describe as her “cackle,” and many found her making faces while Pence spoke off-putting – but not as annoying as, say, Al Gore’s sighs.
Harris reminded Democrats that there’s a young candidate on their ticket, and Pence reminded Republicans that there’s civility on theirs. But Harris is the challenger, and in most cases, challengers win by not losing. That is the sage advice Eisenhower had given Nixon in 1960. Then again, although Harris was heralded as a ferocious debater who would have “incinerated” Trump if she were the ticket headliner according to some of her followers, she didn’t seem all that spectacular in her spotlight moment.
Harris did speak with passion about the Trump administration’s handling of COVID, and to a lesser extent its attempt to repeal Obamacare.
Pence’s most powerful moment was when he continued to press Harris about her wanting the Democrats to pack the Supreme Court (i.e., exceed the current nine justices), and she awkwardly dodged the question repeatedly.
This turned out to be a rare debate insofar as both candidates really helped their tickets. Harris reassured that if she has to step in for Biden, she is quite capable (in fact, many Democratic voters would prefer it). Pence exudes calmness and stability, and also alleviates voters’ concerns in case he’s in the top seat.
Some lines did seem rehearsed, for sure. Pence’s plagiarism joke about Biden, and Harris’ “don’t lecture me” complaints, reminiscent of the first male-female running mates debate, in 1984, between George H.W. Bush and Geraldine Ferraro, in which the latter scored points by admonishing her male rival for patronizing her.
Another reason I gave Harris a slight edge was because Pence had an important job to do: score a big win for Trump. But he came up short.
With the second Trump-Biden debate canceled because the sponsor wanted it to be virtual, which Trump rejected, it all boils down to one more between the presidential rivals. Don’t count on it being a game-changer, unless someone wins it big.
Some bad luck befell Pence in a missed opportunity to hammer Harris on another vulnerable area for the Democrats: lax law enforcement beliefs. But as he spoke about Harris’ record and implicit sympathy toward movements to defund the police, hardly anyone heard a word he said, because the vast majority of viewers had become fascinated by the big black fly that had landed atop his snow-white head.