Vice President Mike Pence emerged from the 2020 vice presidential debate Wednesday night with a sound victory over challenger Sen. Kamala Harris. The debate was, of course, calmer and more focused on policy than the presidential debate between Trump and Biden last week. Although it may seem surprising that such conditions would work in favor of the bombastic Trump administration, Pence’s unflappable demeanor and meticulous preparation proved to be his big advantages of the night.
Pence started the evening by mounting a much better defense of the administration’s COVID response than Trump ever could. It was not necessarily convincing, but all he really had to do was survive what was sure to be the most challenging segment of the night. From that point on, Pence coasted on Harris’s and Biden’s disagreements over moderate vs progressive policy and Harris’s own hypocritical record on criminal justice reform, the Green New Deal, fracking, and more.
Harris responded to these points by being overly defensive. Were she debating Trump, her cries of ‘excuse me, I’m speaking’ and constant eye rolls and smirks might have been excused as sassy and bold. Instead, they merely underscored the fact that Pence carried himself with respect and grace the entire evening. Certainly this will not be how the mainstream media covers the debate; they will quickly fashion Harris into a girl boss who resisted Pence’s efforts to mansplain to her.
Harris’s petulance was especially obvious in her refusal to answer Pence when he repeatedly pressed her on whether or not she and Joe Biden would pack the Supreme Court. The Biden campaign has managed to wiggle out of the question repeatedly; Harris did so again by trying to reverse the situation on to the Trump administration’s ‘packing’ of lower courts with judges that she considers ‘unqualified’ and not diverse enough. Pence helpfully noted at the end of her answer that she still had not actually addressed the issue of court packing. She struggled again when Pence pointed out that she attacked a judicial nominee for his membership in the Knights of Columbus, guffawing that Pence’s attack was offensive, but failing to defend what she actually said. She bragged about working as a prosecutor but declined to mention her work locking up people for minor offenses.
Meanwhile, Harris’s sharpest attack lines were either straight up lies or, at best, misleading. She claimed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act only helped the richest Americans, but 82 percent of middle-class Americans received a tax cut under that legislation. She repeated the lie that Trump called neo-Nazis and white supremacists ‘very fine people’ and that he called all Mexicans ‘rapists’. Harris claimed the Trump administration demonstrated loyalty to Russia by refusing to raise that the country had allegedly put bounties on US soldiers. That intelligence has not been confirmed, has been actively questioned by the top US general in the Middle East, and yet still secretary of state Mike Pompeo confirmed that he warned Russia there would be consequences if they did implement bounties. Harris claimed that Biden has been ‘very clear’ on fracking, even though he said in July 2019 that he would ‘eliminate’ the practice, and reiterated in March that there would be ‘no new fracking.’ Now Biden claims he doesn’t want to end fracking. She attacked Trump for owing millions of dollars, demanding to know to whom he owes that money, even though the vast majority of it is public record.
The only time Harris really got a break during the debate was when a fly landed on Pence’s head and refused to leave. Was Pence perhaps too stiff? That could be the only possible criticism of his performance. He even attempted to combat that perception, opening early with a snappy line about Biden’s ‘plagiarism’ problem, and closing with a reminder that the Democrats refused a peaceful transition of power in 2016 when they spied on the Trump campaign, accused the President of colluding with the Russians, and impeached him for asking questions about Biden’s family corruption. These were good reminders to Trump’s base that although Pence may be worlds apart from their leader in style, he’s still loyal on substance.