In terms of civility, style, and substance, this debate was light-years ahead of the presidential contest last week. I suppose we should be thankful, but it feels perverse to reward those who have lowered the bar enough to finally step over it.
It was civil, and largely lacking the fireworks of last week’s fracas. There were points of rudeness, and the vice president did speak over Harris a couple of times, and once in my recollection, completely ignored the moderator’s command to stop talking. A few brief times, Harris said, “excuse me, I’m talking,” but largely it seemed that these two could have a working lunch in later times without a problem. I didn’t track the time, but some commentators suggested that Pence got a lot more time than Harris. Both candidates mentioned things they appreciated about the other candidate, and had an opportunity to display empathy, and both were able to do so with success.
In terms of style, it wasn’t a difficult debate to sit through, or to ponder. Some debates have rough patches, but this one seemed pretty smooth. Pence is adept at not answering the question posed, as are most modern politicians. Fortunately for him, he’s pleasant to listen to generally speaking, so it’s less infuriating than it otherwise would be. Some commentators suggested that Pence was “running out the clock”. I believe this would be a more effective strategy if they were ahead. Running behind, this seems like a mistake. Overall, Pence didn’t hurt himself, in my view. Other commentators on television said that he was far worse, in terms of television presentation, but I was largely trying to listen, as opposed to watching.
As for Harris, it seems that most of the attack lines that Biden and Harris have been using still work. As far as the mismanagement of the pandemic, this charge is perilously close to conventional wisdom. I think that Harris effectively made those points early in the debate. It seems that Pence’s strategy there is to assume that some chunk of the country agrees with Harris, and his chunk of the country sees the whole thing completely differently. In other words, tragically, the two bases see two different realities, and never the twain shall meet.
A couple of instances of attempted point-scoring occurred regarding the Supreme Court, and racism. Mike Pence attempted to get Harris to answer whether their administration would pack the court, if Amy Coney Barrett were rushed through to the Supreme Court. All Harris would say is that the Biden-Harris ticket thinks the election should intervene, before that process concludes. I think it wise to dodge that question, because even if they supported it, they don’t have to face its reality until it arrives.
On racism, Vice President Pence seemed to suggest that implicit bias and systemic racism were claims of extensive individual malice on the part of police officers and citizens. Even if he knows better, I believe that he is counting on his voters not knowing what those terms mean. There was a specific question about the Taylor case, from Louisville, Kentucky. I don’t think it was a poor answer from the vice president, but I do believe it was a missed opportunity to demonstrate more empathy.
Moreover, he returned to their ticket’s avowed total support of the police. He left an opening for Harris, and it seemed to me that she took it, more effectively than he did. By the same token, it is not a stretch to say that progressive political actors and politicians have moved to weaponize the concepts, irrespective of their value in social science. It is likely also that President Trump will never receive the generous benefit of doubt relating to his comments after the Charlottesville tragedy. I have read countless laments and outraged screeds in right-leaning media about the alleged missing context. In the end, a missed opportunity is a missed opportunity, and one’s opponents do not live to correct the record, and they will not do it for you.
In terms of the Supreme Court, Vice President Pence gave a more than serviceable answer concerning pro-life issues, and Judge Barrett, but again, he did not seem to be speaking to the entire country. In large measure, the Biden campaign has downplayed its support for Roe. Even in this debate, Harris immediately pivoted to the Affordable Care Act. I do believe that such a move is wise, because some segment of the winning margin— if the polls are accurate— is composed of disaffected Republicans, who are not thrilled with the Democratic ticket with respect to abortion.
In terms of substance, the most meaty part of the debate was in foreign policy. It seems that China and Russia will be major sources of concern for whomever controls the executive branch after the election. Whether Russia is returning to communism is questionable, but its outright authoritarianism is plain. There have been claims and counter-claims that each side is compromised by these enemies, but I do not think that either side landed a knockout blow on these points. With respect to trade, it does seem that Harris is reviving the Democratic Party’s commitment to global free trade. It will be interesting to see if the progressive left in some sectors goes toward Trump, and his anti-trade rhetoric. Pence tried to go in this direction, but it seemed quick, and not full-throated.
It also seems that the Trump-Pence ticket wants to link the Biden-Harris environmental plan to more progressive elements in their party. I don’t know if this will meet with success, but I noted that the only thing Harris didn’t do to draw that contrast was pull out a Republican Party membership card. It doesn’t seem like they fear losing support on their left flank, in parrying the attacks from the other side. I think they may be right, in that negative partisanship may be so strong that it will not cost them enthusiasm with their own voters.
All in all, I think the American people were served by this discussion, and it was more reminiscent of the bipartisan spirit of ages past. If we are exceedingly fortunate, the presidential candidates will continue the trend. I call this debate a draw, which benefits Biden-Harris, by the nature of the case.
Jason Kettinger is Associate Editor of Open for Business.