Why 2020’s vice presidential debate matters

No idea whether this is a sign of progress, or an indicator that the Trump campaign isn’t well-organised

by JONATHAN BERNSTEIN / pic by BLOOMBERG

NO VICE presidential debate has ever made any difference to the outcome of the election, and this year’s edition won’t be the first to do so. It’s unlikely that the Wednesday night face-off between VP Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris will remain in the news beyond, say, late yesterday morning.

But sometimes, an utterly forgettable debate can tell us something important.

First of all: Pence and Harris are both skilled politicians, and they acquitted themselves well. Pence had the harder task. Not only is his running mate well behind in the polls, but the VP had to defend several indefensible things, whether it’s the administration’s record on the pandemic, including the recent outbreak at the White House, or the various awful things that US President Donald Trump has said over the years.

But Harris had a tough job, too, given that everyone (surely including the Biden-Harris campaign itself) knows that Black candidates, female candidates and certainly Black women can often be interpreted by some voters and by the media through various biases and stereotypes. She had to be tough and strong without triggering any of those biases.

To be fair, Pence too had to deal with a different set of gender- and ethnic-based stereotypes involved in debating against a Black (and Asian-American) woman.

Both candidates used standard political skills — ignoring questions so they could get to their talking points, bulldozing over the moderator when she called “time” using facial expressions, while the other candidate was talking to deflate his or her answers, and deploying obviously rehearsed answers.

(Pence did the first two somewhat more often than Harris did; Harris made more use of facial expressions; and they both relied on plenty of the practiced answers.)

To say they did that is a compliment, not an insult. A lot of viewers get frustrated, to be sure, when candidates duck a question. But politicians can and should talk about what they want to talk about in this kind of format. Sure, a very skilled politician can switch topics without obviously dodging a question, but only a poor one will be constrained by what the moderator — or the other candidate — wants him or her to discuss. Neither candidate was particularly sharp this time, but they both are professionals, and it showed.

Two more things to note. For Pence: It’s astonishing to me how weak the attacks are that the Trump campaign has developed to take on Joe Biden. The night’s two big prepared attacks were typical. One was to try to blame Biden for the violence in Minnesota and elsewhere, events that have taken place while Trump has been president.

The Trump-Pence argument also has to overcome Biden’s constant condemnation of violence and riots. The other goal was to blame Biden for Islamic State violence during the Obama-Biden administration. That’s a potentially strong attack line perhaps, but it’s one we haven’t heard much of until now.

The rest consisted of scattershot claims about Biden’s agenda that have the big disadvantage that Biden isn’t actually proposing any of it (raising taxes on most people, banning fracking, supporting a Green New Deal, and more).

The other thing to note? After Harris was named as Biden’s running mate, I said on Twitter that we would hear way more about her before and as she was chosen than after. Vice presidential candidates mostly disappear over the course of the campaign. A bunch of people I respect jumped on me for that, arguing that a Black woman would inevitably be demonised by the Trump campaign at least, and perhaps by the media as well.

There has been some of that. But for the most part, it’s been below the surface. Both the news media and the Trump campaign have essentially accepted that she’s qualified for the job, and therefore, for the presidency, despite having served less than a full term as senator. (I do think she’s well-qualified, but then again, I thought Dan Quayle was, too, and it didn’t stop people from doubting it.)

At one point, Harris chose to give her why-I-am-qualified answer during the debate, even though no one bothered asking it.

I have no idea whether this is a sign of progress, or an indicator that the Trump campaign isn’t well-organised, or just a tribute to how impressive Harris has been in both her presidential and vice presidential campaigns. But we shouldn’t ignore it: That she’s not an issue is a pretty big deal.

And that is something to remember, well after this debate is forgotten. — Bloomberg


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.