Conservative media organizations were confident that Mike Pence thoroughly trounced Kamala Harris during Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate. If you had only read prominent right-leaning outlets and pundits to catch up on the faceoff—which a snap poll on CNN said Harris won 59 percent to 38 percent—you’d have learned that the California senator revealed herself as spineless toward China, insincere, and an extremist on taxes and the environment.
Altogether, conservatives were much happier about Pence’s fairly conventional performance than they were about Trump’s blustery approach during the first presidential debate last week. National Review senior political correspondent Jim Geraghty extolled the vice president’s “gentle jab[s]” and ability to make just about anything sound like “plainspoken Midwestern common sense.” Other takes were more graphic: The Federalist’s Sean Davis raved, “If last week’s presidential debate was a dumpster fire, the VP debate between Pence and Harris was a one-sided beatdown.” He also made an Anchorman reference: “There was a horse, and a man on fire, and Mike Pence murdered Kamala Harris with a trident.” On Fox News, Sean Hannity compared Pence’s performance to “a surgical strike effectively smoking out the radical policies that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris represent.”
Geraghty made a shrewd point that bore out in reactions to the debate on either side of the political divide: “If you liked [Harris] before, you probably loved her tonight. If you didn’t like her before, you probably loathed her tonight.” Perhaps relatedly, one point conservative pundits kept hitting throughout the night was Harris’ affect. While many in the left and the mainstream media felt Harris was holding back (particularly following Pence’s more mendacious glosses on the Trump administration’s record), those on the right needled her as smug, fake, and cold—not unlike the gendered criticisms of Hillary Clinton’s temperament during her 2016 run. Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro accused Harris of “faux sincerity, and faux outrage” and added that “her smirking isn’t helping.” Free Beacon contributor Noah Pollak opined, “Harris really has a likability problem—comes across as smug, condescending, snarky, insincere.” And conservative radio host Buck Sexton needled her for lacking “warmth” and also tweeted, “Every word that comes out of Kamala’s mouth and every emotion she expresses feels like it came from a room of overpaid DNC political consultants.”
There were a few moments that conservatives seemed particularly keen to highlight. Immediately after the debate, most right-leaning outlets published pieces about Pence cornering Harris on the question of whether she and Biden would move to pack the Supreme Court if the Senate confirms nominee Amy Coney Barrett. A piece in the Blaze, reflecting most conservatives’ takeaway from the moment, reads, “Harris, just as Biden did in the first presidential debate, sidestepped the question and refused to give a straight answer.” Conservatives also seemed pleased with Pence and Harris’ sparring over fracking. The Federalist ran a piece titled, “Kamala Harris Doubles Down on Biden’s Fracking Flip Flop” applauding Pence’s attacks on Biden’s record on fracking. Conservative writer Stephen L. Miller similarly remarked: “Pence hits Harris & moderator on multiple answers on fracking. His best moment of night. Harris is silent.” (Biden has repeatedly said he wouldn’t ban fracking, a point Harris repeated on Wednesday.) The debate over the nominees’ approaches to China similarly elicited conservative cheers. Pundits were particularly delighted by Pence’s line “Lost the trade war with China? Joe Biden never fought it,” in response to Harris’ point that the U.S. has lost manufacturing and farming jobs as a result of the Trump administration’s hostile trade relations with China.
Even though conservative pundits were sure that Pence had won the debate, they nevertheless contended that the game was rigged against him and criticized moderator Susan Page, USA Today’s Washington bureau chief, for favoring Harris. Federalist contributor Benjamin Weingarten charged that Page was “cutting off VP Pence while he’s landing substantive blows against Harris-Biden,” while Shapiro scoffed, “How exactly did Susan Page just ask about the horrid state of the economy without mentioning that the economy was historically booming before covid?” How indeed.
Support our 2020 coverage
Slate is covering the election issues that matter to you. Support our work with a Slate Plus membership. You’ll also get a suite of great benefits.Join Slate Plus