Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate seemed likely to be a draw. Vice President Mike Pence was coming in as an incumbent, and, unlike President Donald Trump, he’s a smooth-talking, unflappable debater. Sen. Kamala Harris was coming in as a sharp-witted former prosecutor who’s made her name skewering Trump administration officials in the Senate. Moderator Susan Page, of USA Today, was easily trampled by both candidates, interjecting with very few follow-up questions, corrections, or rule-enforcing cutoffs. For the most part, both Harris and Pence got to say exactly what they’d planned to say—no more, no less.
But Harris was the clear winner of the evening for two reasons. First, she made good use of one of her biggest strengths: the visible joy she derives from these kinds of political battles. In 2016, Pence made then–vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine look aggressive and silly by responding to his every accusation with a smile, a scoff, and a shake of the head; tonight, Harris did the same to Pence, responding to his lies with incredulous chuckles and a perpetually raised eyebrow, signaling to voters that they shouldn’t be fooled by this clown. The second contributor to Harris’ win wasn’t Harris’ doing at all: Trump’s record made the debate an easy win for Harris.
No matter how evenhanded Page’s questions, they still reflected poorly on Trump, and Pence. The first three questions included mentions of the nine states that have set new records for COVID-19 cases in the past week, the “superspreader event” held at the White House two weeks ago, and the fact that Trump may well end up incapacitated by the virus he contracted due to his persistent negligence. Pence had no good answer for any of it, though he tried to make a weak insinuation that, by criticizing his administration’s lack of a pandemic plan, Harris was diminishing the sacrifices Americans have made to contain the coronavirus. When hundreds of thousands of Americans have suffered and died on your watch, there’s no real good way to spin it.
Harris knew that, and she came out of the gate with the best opening line I’ve ever heard in a political debate, calling Trump’s COVID-19 response, quite reasonably, “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.” She asked viewers how they might have prepared or protected themselves if Trump had been honest with the country about the dangers of the virus instead of downplaying its deadly risks. “They knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you,” Harris said. “They covered it up.” When asked about whether Biden would be transparent about his health records, she quickly agreed, then pivoted to Trump’s tax avoidance and his $400 million debt to one or more unknown entities. “Just so everyone is clear: When we say in debt, it means you owe money to somebody,” Harris said, explaining the national security implications of this situation. Pence offered a gaping loophole of a defense: “The president said those public reports are not accurate.”
While Pence recited vague talking points about regulations, cops, “forest management,” and the ideology of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Harris responded with facts. She’d open her answers with a broad statement (“Trump has betrayed our friends and embraced dictators around the world”), then drill down on specifics (“let’s take, for example, Russia”). At every turn, Pence met Harris’ recollection of Trump’s record with a dodge or a pathetic excuse. Trump called white supremacists “very fine people”? Well, “President Trump has Jewish grandchildren,” Pence said.
Pence could cover for some of his administration’s failures by filling his time with country-club smarm or simply ignoring the moderator’s question. But since all the facts laid out by Harris have also been confirmed and covered exhaustively in the news, his salesmanship couldn’t drown out the reality of living in Trump’s America. After nearly four years in office, you’d think a presidential administration would have something tangible to show besides its defense of Confederate monuments and a tax bill that redistributed wealth to the wealthy. With less yelling to serve as a distraction, tonight’s debate made clear that the record of the Trump administration has been a giant self-own for the GOP.
Pence also seemed exhausted, either by the task of debating Harris, whose magnetism was stronger than it was during any of the Democratic debates, or, possibly, because he is coming down with something. (He has refused to quarantine after spending time with several people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19, but it’s just a cold, probably!) At times, it seemed like his heart wasn’t in it. Sure, Pence was able to needle Harris on a few topics she wasn’t willing to entertain, including her support for the Green New Deal and the possibility of adding seats to the Supreme Court. But it wasn’t an evenly matched debate. When your only response to “you are currently ruining America” is “well, you might be too liberal,” you’ve already lost the fight.