Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris is a former prosecutor. Vice President Mike Pence is a career politician. The debate between them was always going to be less lively and dramatic than the name-calling last week between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. But it wouldn’t be a snooze-fest – nothing in this election cycle is.
Harris began the night with an impactful opening pitch: the Trump-Pence administration is a dumpster-fire sitting on a wrecked economy, a mountain of lies, and the worst pandemic in a century. Trump’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been the ‘greatest failure of any presidential administration’ in history. President Trump was informed early on about the deadly attributes and high contagiousness of the coronavirus, yet sat on the information and did nothing about it. ‘They knew what was happening,’ Harris told the debate hall. ‘They covered it up’ and were unwilling to speak the truth to the American people. It was Harris’s strongest line of the night and thrust discussion of Covid-19 to the centre of the conversation.
Pence, the loyal soldier, obviously took strong objection to Harris’s characterisation. ‘From the very first day, President Trump has put the health of America first,’ he replied (a lot of Americans, particularly the hundreds of thousands who have lost family members and friends to the virus, would disagree). The Vice President cited the list of actions President Trump took to contain the virus, most notably the ban on travel from China – a ban, Pence reminded viewers, Biden himself opposed at the time and likened to nativism. The White House coronavirus task force, Pence added, spent all hours of the night pushing medical supplies, drugs, and personal protective equipment to hospitals in the most affected areas in order to ensure health care professionals had the tools they needed to treat patients streaming into their facilities. Of course, the nurse in New York City who had to make her own medical gown out of a trash bag wouldn’t agree with that assessment.
As one would expect given the summer of demonstrations across America, race and policing were big topics. Harris, the first African American, South Asian woman to be on a presidential ticket, talked up her record as California’s attorney general and sought to convince Americans that police departments need major systemic reform in how they do business. It was a very similar pitch to Joe Biden's last week: accountability for bad police; a ban on chokeholds; decriminalisation of marijuana; and a better connection overall between police officers and the community they are sworn to protect.
Pence, in contrast, tried to switch the conversation entirely to law and order. While there can be no excuse for police brutality, there can also be no excuse for rioters breaking into stores and anarchists burning down buildings. Pence told Harris that it was an insult to the country at large to label America as systemically racist.
The most interesting part of the debate was not what the two candidates said, but rather what they left out. Harris completely avoided answering the question of whether a Biden-Harris administration would attempt to pack the US Supreme Court by adding additional seats to the bench. Pence, seeing an opportunity to attack, tried repeatedly to press her on this point. The fact Harris stayed away from it is all you need to know about how controversial the topic is. Say yes, and be accused of changing the rules. Say no, and be attacked by the very progressive voters Biden has been courting for months ever since he won the Democratic nomination.
Pence didn’t answer every question either. Towards the end of the debate, the Vice President was asked what his role would be in the event his boss, Donald Trump, rejected the election results and refused to hand over power peacefully. Pence opted for the old ‘I think we’re going to win anyway, so this question is moot’ tactic, which was completely unsatisfying and a little troubling.
At the end of the night, both candidates could walk off the stage reasonably pleased with their performance. Neither flopped spectacularly. Neither went off the reservation. Both delivered the message their superiors wanted them to deliver. Compared to the Trump-Biden matchup last week, this event was civilized and dare I say normal.
But in the end, this vice-presidential debate won’t matter much. No American is voting for Mike Pence or Kamala Harris. Both performed their role as loyal surrogate and spinmeister.