Point of View Columns

When a Debate is not a Debate

The first and only debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence promised to be more coherent and rational if only because Donald Trump was not in the room. Of course by now most observers understood that Pence was Trump Lite, perhaps more palatable but still with the same message.

That having been said, the debate promised to reveal actual policy concerns instead of personal differences.

Here’s what we learned in real time.

  • The debate rules agreed to by both teams required that all in attendance would wear masks. The Biden-Harris team insisted that there be plexiglass partitions separating Harris and Pence and while the Pence team acceded to this demand they thought it smart to mock Kamala Harris for wanted to be protected from a man who has been in close proximity to a current COVID-19 patient (that would be Trump). But that is what logic looks like in the Land of Trump.
  • From the very beginning Susan Page seemed to be a better moderator than Chris Wallace by taking charge of the proceedings in a fashion that seemed to escape Wallace. Of course, she did not have a raging bull named Trump pawing the ground while panting and sorting and clearly that would make a difference.
  • The first question addressed the COVID-19 pandemic and the way that the Trump administration has responded. Harris immediately drew blood by stating that the incompetence that she outlined meant that the Trump-Pence team had “forfeited the right to reelection”. Ouch.
  • That initial comment left Pence shaking his head and, as it turned out he spent a lot of time shaking his head while Harris was speaking. That is, until a fly seemed to find some kind of fascination with the top of Pence’s head.
  • When Pence was asked about the globally high pandemic death rate in America he pivoted and stated that Trump has put the health of America first. He then went on to blame China and predict that there would be vaccines available before the end of the year. He went on to state that the Biden COVID plan was actually the Trump plan and accused Trump of plagiarism, in the process alluding to a plagiarism incident involving Biden when he was in his early twenties. Once again providing the Trump-Pence team when given a choice, will always go low.
  • Harris retorted with haymakers detailing the incompetence and malpractice of the Trump administration during the pandemic. Pence then wrapped himself in the flag and stated that for Harris to criticize the Trump administration was “an insult to the American people” although it was never clear why that would be the case.
  • When asked about the viability of a vaccine, Harris stated that she would take a vaccine that was endorsed by Dr. Fauci but would not take a vaccine recommended by Trump. Pence, seemingly affixed to his high horse, accused Harris of “playing politics with people’s lives” although again, it was not clear why that would be the case.
  • Notably both Pence and Harris absolutely dodged the question about whether they have had discussions with Trump and Biden respectively regarding 25th Amendment issues given that on January 20th either man would be the oldest person ever inaugurated as president. Interesting duck and dodge.
  • The debate settled into a traditional thrust and parry with neither side drawing blood. Harris claims that the Trump promise of a healthcare plan to replace Obamacare is imaginary, Pence basically pirouettes and doesn’t respond.
  • Pence goes on to introduce a bit of magical thinking by claiming that the environment is better since Trump became president which is simply not true. And when asked about climate change Pence spins again and starts talking about tax cuts.
  • When asked about how the Obama administration handled ISIS Harris deftly ducked and dodged into a conversation about Trump referring to veterans and dead American war heroes as “suckers and losers”. Ouch.
  • Pence starts to look like Trump in try to talk over the moderator but Susan Page is no Chris Wallace.
  • Pence then executes another pirouette from a question about Roe V. Wade to talking about Isis and Iran – the connective tissue being apparent to nobody but Pence. But he does take the time to explicitly embrace a ban on abortion.
  • As should have been expected, Pence denies the existence of systemic racism in America – and why did he do that?
  • Pence walked into a buzz saw named Harris who almost certainly was waiting for this moment, nailing Pence to Trump’s praise of white supremacists with his “good people on both sides” comments after Charlottesville.
  • Pence, pinned against the ropes executes a clever deflection by attacking Harris on the Black incarceration rate in San Francisco while she was District Attorney – nowhere near a mortal blow but certainly on that had to leave a mark.
  • The debate ends with Harris repeatedly lecturing Pence on the fact that she will not be lectured to.
  • Pence waffles on the peaceful transition of power question and it would seem clear that even in the face of an electoral landslide it will be more than a notion to pry Team Orange out of the White House. Of course, by that time many of the White House staff may just be in the final stages of COVID-19 recovery.
  • The debate ends and Harris is greeted by her mask wearing husband and Pence is greeted by his maskless wife, despite the very strict pre-debate guidelines. What is it with masks and these people?

It is clear that this was not your typical college or university debate team type of debate. It was a series of suitable sound bites with the opponent simply being the foil for yet another talking point.

Of course that is why, in 2020, a debate is not a debate.