Last night, America finally got the traditional debate it wanted. We then remembered that “traditional debate” means politicians providing answers they want to give … regardless of the questions asked by the moderator. Both Mike Pence and Kamala Harris made full use of that tactic with moderator Susan Page, but only one emerged unscathed and unflustered.
Give Harris credit, however; she managed to stay ahead of Pence for the first half of the debate, thanks in part to the first choice of topics — COVID-19 and health care. Pence ably defended Donald Trump and the administration, but Harris clearly prepared for these topics and used them to good effect. One might even say that Trump lost this part of the debate by giving Bob Woodward 18 interviews and shooting his mouth off last spring:
Pence kept jabbing at Harris, though, while refusing to concede on any point. Harris’ weakness on this topic is Biden’s — neither of them have put together a coherent plan to do anything differently than Trump and Pence are doing now. That prompted this fun shot at Biden’s record of plagiarism from Pence, which set Harris back on her heels for the first time:
Pence would have done well to keep talking about Biden’s plagiarism and serial dishonesty, but instead took advantage of the topic changes to get under Harris’ skin. Harris’ debate tells started coming out, especially in the second half, with smirking and odd smiles while Pence went on the attack. For instance, Harris thought that she had a winning argument when she claimed that Trump had lost the trade war with China and that China was now better liked around the world than the US. Pence could hardly believe his ears, exclaiming, “Lost the trade war with China? Joe Biden never fought it!”
After that exchange, Harris’ frustration became more and more noticeable. Her answers became less and less coherent, either from a lack of preparation or simply from flailing. Harris’ annoying habit of smirking into the camera increased as the night progressed as well, another tell recognizable from her flops in the Democratic primary debates. The contrast between the cool and collected Pence could not have been greater than it was over the Supreme Court packing question, which Jazz already wrote about at length. Pence kept pressing Harris on it by repeated the direct question, and made her unwillingness to answer it painfully obvious.
Harris also flopped on the economy and taxes, having only the bullet points to argue while Pence prepared with the actual data from the 2017 tax-cut package. Pence kept hammering the point that the average family saw $2000 annual benefit from those changes, and repealing it would hike taxes on a broad swath of Americans. He did even better on energy issues; Pence essentially dodged climate-change questions by turning them into fracking questions, and kept hammering Harris and Biden over their Green New Deal Lite package. Harris kept insisting that Biden had no plans to ban fracking while Pence kept pointing back to their own agenda and rhetoric about eliminating fossil fuels.
By the time the debate was over, Pence emerged as the clear winner, both in form and substance. That leaves us with this question: will it have any impact? It might, in this cycle, since it’s likely going to be the first and last substantive engagement between the two campaigns. The overnight ratings haven’t yet come out, but I’d be surprised if this didn’t get a lot of eyeballs, especially after last week’s debacle. At the very least, Pence gave a very capable and compelling defense of the Trump administration’s record, even better than Trump himself.