Ben Mathis-Lilley: Well, a debate has just concluded that will be remembered for a fly landing on Mike Pence’s head and a question being written by an eighth grader named “Brecklyn.” You and I aren’t here to fixate on such cultural ephemera—not because we’re above it, because we very much aren’t, but because Slate has other people assigned to the fly and Brecklyn posts. So let’s discuss how we think the candidates’ performances will affect the presidential race.
Julia, how do you think the candidates’ performances will affect the presidential race?
Julia Craven: I gotta say, I’m upset that we aren’t talking about the fly and why, as sweet as she sounds, now is not the time to entertain a middle schooler’s question about why people are fighting. To your point, though, I think we saw two very different performances this evening. We saw Vice President Mike Pence in an impossible position, where he was expected to answer for the failings of the Trump administration. And we saw Sen. Kamala Harris chew him up and pick her teeth with his bones. Pence solidified the growing public belief that the current administration is feckless, while Harris bolstered messaging from the Biden camp that the former vice president makes better political decisions. So, if anything, Team Biden just hit another 3-pointer.
Ben: We’re going to have to find subtopics to disagree on, it looks like, because I agree with that overall takeaway. I don’t feel “sorry” for Mike Pence, but I think it would be hard for anyone to get on the winning side of a debate in which the first three questions are, to paraphrase: “Why did so many Americans die of COVID-19?” “Why did you just hold a COVID-19 superspreader event at the White House?” and “What’s the deal with the president having COVID-19?” And as someone who watched Harris struggle to make clear points in Democratic primary debates—as you wrote, she never seemed to know what version of herself, or purpose in running, she wanted to convey—I was impressed by her performance Wednesday night. She repeatedly and fluidly steered every subject toward the same idea: The Trump administration has done destructive, unpopular things, and Joe Biden has some sane, commonsense ideas about how to deal with the damage. She had a lower degree of difficulty than Pence, sure! But she did her job.
But! Did she make too many WOMAN FACES while Pence was talking???
Julia: You know, I saw those takes, and it really speaks to how people nitpick women for existing—especially when they aren’t white. It’s also just not a sound criticism, particularly when it comes from someone who does the same thing on live TV every time she is on live TV.
ANYWAY, I want to know what you think about some of the pivots. As with most debates, so much of it is a blur, but one moment that stands out most in retrospect is when she took Pence being the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and used it to undermine his entire existence.
Ben: That was one of her most sizzling moments: “Whatever the vice president is claiming the administration has done, clearly it hasn’t worked.” Another one was a few minutes later, about the administration’s lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act: “If you have a preexisting condition, heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, they’re coming for you. If you love someone who has a preexisting condition, they’re coming for you.” The third one I remember was a transition that went something like this: Question about Biden’s health --> pivot about “transparency” on health and personal finances --> pointed question about who lent Donald Trump the hundreds of millions of dollars he currently owes, as documented on the tax returns he won’t release.
Those were the “prosecutorial” moments a lot of Democrats wanted to see from her, and some people are arguing that she could have gone for more of them. I don’t think that’s wrong, per se—there is, in fact, a lot of stuff about the Trump administration that most voters don’t like! But I think Biden, for his many faults as an off-the-cuff public speaker, already does a very effective job of conveying visceral exhaustion and disgust with what Trump stands for. What Biden isn’t as good at is summarizing basic mainstream Democratic doctrine in a coherent two-minute series of sentences. That’s what Harris did tonight on subjects like climate change and international alliances. Maybe that wouldn’t have been the right approach if the Republican at the top of the ticket were someone relatively nonpolarizing like John McCain or Mitt Romney. But I thought it was good tonight!
I’m inclined to see the best in Democratic performances, but am I wrong that she came across as a person who could safely be put in charge of things?
Julia: You’re not wrong at all. And she did this deftly in her answer regarding presidential incapacitation. It was a simple formulation: I’m not going to tell you whether Biden and I have discussed this. What I will say is that if something were to happen to him, I got y’all. We share a vision.
But I also considered a duality to this moment. I wondered if this was a notice to anyone who may question whether she’s qualified for this job or for any high-ranking political office. I could very well be projecting here, but Black women often have to make it clear that we belong in certain spaces. So it crossed my mind.
Ben: Yes, that was the moment that seemed most like she was intentionally introducing herself to “low-information” independent voters, particularly white ones: as a serious person ready for a serious job. There was a little of that at the end, too, when she emphasized her work as a prosecutor—as a reliable cog in the law enforcement machine—a few times.
As you alluded to, there will doubtless be some backlash to that assertiveness from people who think she was too snotty or rude. But I don’t know that such a thing will make much of a difference given that Biden is at the top of the ticket, not her—and I thought it was evident that Mike Pence didn’t think that either, because he didn’t do much of the culture-war posturing his boss loves. Instead, he went with a more traditional Republican-debating-a-Democrat approach: arguing that Harris and Biden want to raise taxes and murder the economy with environmental regulations. Was that … smart?
Julia: I honestly don’t know. I didn’t really understand Pence’s strategy, or if he even had one. It’s true he didn’t go full-blown racist like his boss would have, but he did dig into the Southern Strategy playbook quite a bit with “rioting,” insinuating that protesters hate police, and saying Amy Coney Barrett’s Christian faith is being attacked. He also spewed really dangerous narratives in his climate denial rant.
But overall, it seems like what we saw was a politician being asked really good questions in a political moment when he can’t effectively lie his way out of them. Shoot, I’m not even sure he tried.
Ben: Yes, I think the fact that Donald Trump spent more time on racially coded appeals during a debate with Joe Biden than Mike Pence did during a debate with Biden’s Black running mate says less about Pence’s worldview than it does about 1) how far gone in his own universe Trump is and 2) how little this election is going to turn on progressive ideas about race and gender.